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A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette 


Peter North 
Harvey Tripp 

f?79 Marshall Cavendish 
1119 Editions 

This 3rd edition published in 2009 by: 
Marshall Cavendish Corporation 
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Tarrytown NY 10591-9001 

First published in 2003 by Times Media Pte Ltd; 2nd edition published in 2006, 
reprinted 2007. 

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Photo Credits: 

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All illustrations by TRIGG 


Culture shock is a state of disorientation that can come over 
anyone who has been thrust into unknown surroundings, away 
from one's comfort zone. CultureShock! is a series of trusted 
and reputed guides which has, for decades, been helping 
expatriates and long-term visitors to cushion the impact of 
culture shock whenever they move to a new country. 

Written by people who have lived in the country and 
experienced culture shock themselves, the authors share all the 
information necessary for anyone to cope with these feelings 
of disorientation more effectively. The guides are written in a 
style that is easy to read and covers a range of topics that will 
arm readers with enough advice, hints and tips to make their 
lives as normal as possible again. 

Each book is structured in the same manner. It begins 
with the first impressions that visitors will have of that city or 
country. To understand a culture, one must first understand the 
people— where they came from, who they are, the values and 
traditions they live by, as well as their customs and etiquette. 
This is covered in the first half of the book. 

Then on with the practical aspects— how to settle in with 
the greatest of ease. Authors walk readers through topics 
such as how to find accommodation, get the utilities and 
telecommunications up and running, enrol the children in 
school and keep in the best of health. But that's not all. Once 
the essentials are out of the way, venture out and try the food, 
enjoy more of the culture and travel to other areas. Then be 
immersed in the language of the country before discovering 
more about the business side of things. 

To round off, snippets of basic information are offered 
before readers are 'tested' on customs and etiquette of the 
country. Useful words and phrases, a comprehensive resource 
guide and list of books for further research are also included 
for easy reference. 


Foreword vi 

Acknowledgements viii 
Map of Saudi Arabia x 

Chapter MiM^^^^^^^M 

First Impressions 1 

Getting There 3 

The Beginnings 11 

The Lie of the Land... 12 

Trading with the World 14 

The Al Sauds 16 

Saudi Arabia: the Early Days 18 

The Origin of Islam 22 

The Spread of Islam 28 

Today's Islam 30 

Pan-Arab Brotherhood: 

In Formation or Disarray? 35 

Sunnis and Shi'ites 38 

Saudi Arabia and Israel 39 

Oil and the Economy 41 

The Government 

of the Present Day 45 

From Bedouinism to Opulence 50 

The Population Explosion 50 

Family Values 52 

Names and Labels 54 

Interaction Between 

the Sexes 55 

Saudi Women 59 

Women and Religion 62 

Acquiring an Identity 62 

Women in the Workforce 65 

Qur'an and the Law 67 

Swapping Cultures 70 

Saudi Arabia's Bedouins 71 

Education 73 

Chapter ^^^^^^^^^^^B 

Getting to 

Know the Saudis 


The Cultural Divide 


The Worker Bees 


The Pecking Order 


Long Term Immigrants 


Separate Societies 


Expatriate Women 


Male Bonding 


Dress Code for 

Saudi Men 


Dress Code for 

Saudi Women 


Dress Code for 

Aliens: Men 


Dress Code for 

Aliens: Women 


Religious Freedoms 


Weddings and Funerals 


Falling Foul of the Law 


Security and Safety 


The Ultimate Penalty 


Paying Blood Money 


Security of Saudi Arabia: 

the Country 



Settling In 




Visas and Documentation 


Pre-Arrival Checks 




Facilities for 

the Handicapped 


Money and Banking 




Help Around 

the Home 


Travel by Car 










Chanter fl^^^^^^^^^^^^^R 

Food and 



Traditional Fare 




Domestic Hospitality 



Bedouin Style 


Coffee Shops 




Chapter H^^^^^^^^^^MJ 

Sights and Sounds 

of Saudi Arabia 


Survivng the Climate 


What Day Is It? 


Public Holidays 






Literary and Visual Arts 


Finding Your Way Around 


The Saudi Arabian 





Travel by Train 


Travel by Air 


The Number 

One Attraction 


Touring Outside 

the Kingdom 


Taking Pictures 


Entertainment and Leisure 


Saudis and Sport 


Guest Workers and Sports 


Chapter M^^^^^^^^^B 

Learning Arabic 


Speaking Arabic 


Reading Arabic 


Writing Arabic 


Arabic as Spoken 

by Arabs 


Learning Arabic 197 

Common Arabic expressions 198 

Saudi's Second Language 199 

Body Language 199 

Economic Development 

and the Labour Force 202 

Why Can't the Saudis 

Run Their Own Country? 203 

Will You Be Replaced 

By a Saudi? 207 

Perpetual Trainees 211 

Inshallah: Philosophy 

or Crutch? 213 

Religion in the Workplace 213 

Employment Contracts 21 6 

Commercial Law 220 

Income Tax 221 

Negative Comment 222 

Getting On With the Boss 222 

Who's In Business 224 

Corruption 226 

Further Information 

on Business Contacts 227 

The Bureaucracy 229 
Famous People 

of Saudi Arabia 237 

Culture Quiz 242 

Do's and Don'ts 248 

Glossary 250 

Resource Guide 253 

Further Reading 260 

About the Authors 266 

Index 268 



In his book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons 
in History, author Michael H Hart judged that the world's most 
influential person of all time was an Arab trader who lived at 
the turn of the 6th and 7th centuries in Mecca in present day 
Saudi Arabia. The name of this individual was Muhammad, the 
founder of the Muslim religion. To Muslims, presently 20 per 
cent of the global population, Muhammad was the Prophet who 
delivered God's word to the world. To non-Muslims, Muhammad 
was the man who delivered the Muslim religion to the world. 
Either way, Muhammad's effect on global human affairs since 
his own time has been profound. 

The other major influence, in terms of recent global interest 
in Saudi Arabia, was the discovery on the Arabian Peninsula 
of the world's biggest oil deposits. The development of the 
Saudi oil fields after the 1 940s cast Saudi Arabia as the swing 
supplier of the world's energy and the most influential member 
of OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries). 
The interaction of these two factors, Islam and oil, have made 
Saudi Arabia one of the most pivotal countries on the planet. 

Oil and the income it has generated has had a profound 
effect on the Saudi culture in this once dirt-poor country of 
limited interest to the rest of the world. In the modern era, 
Saudi Arabia's economic prospects have varied with the oil 
price. In 1 940s and 1 950s, as the the first oil revenue flowed 
into the country, the Saudi Royal family first experimented with 
conspicuous consumption in its most extreme form — nearly 
driving the country bankrupt in the process. After the first 
big oil price increase in 1973, Saudi Arabia spent some of 
its petrodollars on national development and invested some 
in Western banks. The Western banks in turn invested in 
Latin American countries, which subsequently announced 
an inability to repay their debts. Laundered through various 
countries, these petrodollars found themselves in the accounts 
of Swiss banks in the name of various unsavoury Third 
World dictators — well beyond the reach of the Treasury of 
Saudi Arabia, the ostensible owner of the money. The price 
of oil peaked again in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, 
but then slumped over the 1980s and 1990s when Saudi 
Arabia survived by deficit financing, building up a massive 


overseas debt. Since the oil price spike that started in around 
2002, Saudi Arabia has applied the bulk of its funds from 
the booming oil price into paying off its accumulated debt 
and increasing its rate of development. As is common 
knowledge, the oil price peaked at US$ 1 47 in mid 2008, 
then quickly slumped as the great global economic 
meltdown of 2008/2009 gathered pace. At time of writing 
the oil price is around US$ 50. Where it will go from there 
is anyone's guess. 

To implement its social and physical development 
programme, Saudi Arabia has, for many years, imported from 
other countries a guest workforce of skilled and unskilled 
labour. Saudi Arabia has a guest labour force five to six million 
strong in a total population of 28 million. Opportunities are 
many for guest workers inside Saudi Arabia to undertake 
an enormous variety of labour contracts, occupations 
and industries. 

This book is principally written as an information guide 
to Saudi's army of guest workers. It also offers advice and 
information for those visiting the kingdom to do business, visit 
family members of guest workers and many other reasons. 
While the major viewpoint taken is that of the Western 
visitor who has accepted employment in Saudi Arabia, or is 
considering doing so, the book also contains helpful hints for 
guest workers from other countries. It offers thumbnail sketches 
of important historical accounts that have created present- 
day cultural attitudes, and includes information of day-to-day 
events within Saudi Arabia. 

As the title of the book suggests, an assignment in Saudi Arabia 
is an experience in the clash of cultures. Saudi Arabia is located 
in a part of the world where the cultural mix is pronounced. 
Three of the world's dominant religions — Islam, Christianity 
and Judaism— originated in these ancient lands. In this region, 
Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism and various other 
'isms' uneasily rub shoulders against each other on a daily basis. 
Culture shock is a part of life in Saudi Arabia, both for the guest 
workers and the indigenous population. Avoiding the pitfalls 
of culture shock and getting the best out of your time in Saudi 
Arabia are two of the main themes of this book. 


With thanks for contributions, advice and proof-reading 
from Margaret Tripp, Charles Jamieson, Anton Mayer, Joseph 
Elkhorne, Ian Blain, Angela Jackson and Len Tripp. 

map of snuDi nRneifl 




'The real meaning of travel, like that of 
a conversation by the fireside, is the discovery of 
oneself through contact with other people...' 
—Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons 

2 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

As one of the authors of this book, when first assigned to a 
project in Saudi Arabia, the personnel agent dealing with the 
paperwork jokingly referred to Saudi Arabia as a 'sandpit'. 
The remark conveys the mental impression of Saudi Arabia 
as an austere barren strip of land peopled by men in flowing 
robes and women in black abayas, with vast expanses of 
sand, oil wells, oil pipelines, big landscapes, big skies, stifling 
heat and occasional camels strolling by. 

On arrival, that may be pretty much the way you find 
it— at least so far as the countryside was concerned. But 

Riyadh— modern skyline to an ancient town. 

First Impressions 3 

missing from this mental picture is the ubiquitous features 
of the modern world, the cosmopolitan cities of high rise 
buildings, the extraordinary airports, the spectacular eastern 
architectural features in mosques and public buildings, the 
freeways, the traffic snarls and the shopping centres. 

Most of the physical infrastructure you will see in Saudi 
Arabia is modern for no better reason than almost all the 
country's infrastructure has been built in the last 50 years. 
This appearance contrasts starkly with attitudes, some of 
which haven't changed greatly since the 7th century ad. 

Saudi Arabia is a modern country with some very ancient 
ways. Therein lies Saudi Arabia's culture shock. 


It is just possible to enter Saudi Arabia by surface transport. 
The border with Iraq is closed until the political climate 
improves, but most of the other land borders are open. 
Access is possible, with various degrees of difficulty, through 
most of the countries with which Saudi Arabia shares land 
borders, Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab 
Emirates (UAE) and the island kingdom of Bahrain which is 
now connected to Saudi Arabia by causeway. People have 
even been known to make landfall on Saudi Arabia by dhow, 
one of the preferred methods of travel of previous eras and 
still operating today. But overland and seaborne entry to 
and from the country is unusual, 
attempted only by the more 
intrepid explorers. Most people 
arrive and leave by air. 

Almost all visitors to Saudi 
Arabia enter through one of 
three airports: one on the Red 
Sea coast, one in the centre 
of the country and one on the 
Persian Gulf coast. 

For those entering the 
kingdom at night through the 
Eastern Province's Damman Airport, the oil bearing parts 

The ' Persian Gulf ' as it is denoted 
on most maps of the Middle East 
is more widely known in Saudi 
Arabia as the 'Arabian Gulf. 
Alternatively it is often referred 
to merely as The Gulf. All three 
terms describe the same body of 
sea water between the Arabian 
Peninsula on its western coast 
and Iran on its eastern coast. In 
this book, we are using the term 
'Persian Gulf throughout. 

4 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

of Saudi Arabia passing beneath the wings may seem like a 
scene from Dante's Inferno. Down below flickering orange 
flares from a thousand oil wells stretch from one horizon to 
the other, and out into the Persian Gulf. Even in these times 
of increasing energy consciousness and concerns for global 
warming, much of the waste gas associated with oil is simply 
flared at the wellhead. 

On flights by day, added to the same scene is the acrid 
black smoke from burning this dirty gas. Usually, a robust 
north-west wind carries these fumes away, spreading 
them across the northern waters of the Indian Ocean. 
But in still weather, the gulf coast may be wreathed in 
a grey canopy of sulphurous fumes. 

Further west, over the land of the interior and away 
from the oil fields on the east coast, the orange desert 
vista stretches mostly uninterrupted from one horizon to 
another. Occasionally, dusty towns and a few large cities 
pass under wings. From the air, most of Saudi Arabia 
appears hot, hostile and featureless desert terrain as it 
truly is at ground level. 

The Immigration Card 

Like most places, entry to Saudi Arabia starts with flight 
attendants distributing immigration cards shortly before 
arrival. By the standards of immigration cards worldwide, 
Saudi Arabia's are remarkably user-unfriendly. An idea 

Saudi Arabian Airlines, also 
known as Saudia, is the 
Kingdom's domestic and 
international carrier. A number 
of Asian, European and US 
airlines service the three 
major Saudi Airports to the 
two coastlines and the central 
region. Saudi Arabia can also 
be reached via hub airlines 
from the smaller Gulf states 
like Bahrain, Dubai and other 
UAE airports. 

Flying In 

Along the western edge of the 
Arabian Peninsula is a mountain 
range running parallell to the 
Red Sea coast. The highest part 
of this range, in the south-west 
corner of the peninsula near 
Saudi's border with Yemen, is 
the Asir region— the wettest part 
of the country. Sufficient rain 
falls here to plant and harvest 
vegetables. From the air, by Saudi 
standards, the Asir countryside 
looks uncharacteristically green. 

First Impressions 5 

of how Saudis think can be gleaned from the fact that 
the smallest field width on the form is the one requiring the 
most letters— your address in Saudi Arabia. If you are staying 
somewhere like the Hilton, the form will allow just enough 
room to provide a brief address; otherwise you will have to 
abbreviate or attach a microchip. 

The other field of major interest on the card is that 
asking you to state your religion. While back home one's 
religion may be a secret about which others are not legally 
entitled to ask, Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries 
in the world which asks you to declare your religious 
allegiances on arrival. This might immediately suggest to 
you, should you have been unaware of it, that in this place, 
religion matters. 

Saudis, like most religious people, consider their own 
religion the one true faith. Though Saudi Muslim clergy may 
come down hard on alternative religions, Islam does afford 
some respect for the older religions, such as Christianity to 
which it is related. Saudis tend to believe that everyone has 
a religion of some sort. Since they pray at least five times a 
day, most Saudis don't contemplate belief systems based on 
the absence of any god at all. 

Presented with the choice on the immigration card, that 
asks you to summarise the state of your religious beliefs in a 
space with room for about ten letters, you might be unwise 
to write 'atheist' in this field. It is better to declare one's faith 
in a false prophet than in no prophet at all. On the other 
hand, Saudis are unlikely to be interested in the fine print 
of your religious beliefs. Saudi Arabia doesn't really need to 
know, for example, whether you are a Seventh Day Adventist 
or a Member of the Church of the New Order. The best 
response, unless you happen to be a Muslim, is something 
brief like 'Christian', 'Hindu' or 'Taoist'. It almost goes without 
saying that 'Judaism' is not the appropriate word to enter in 
this field. 

On the Ground 

Disembarking from the plane, your first taste of the exotic 
delights of the Middle East will be the airport itself. Sheiks, 

6 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

kings, emirs, sultans and presidents of the Middle East tend 
to rival each other in expending public money (which, under 
their system of government, is effectively their own money) 
on extravagant public buildings. Modern-day Middle East 
potentates attempt to outdo each other in the grandeur 
of their airports, seemingly driven by the need to keep up 
with the Joneses, or in the case of the movers and sheiks 
of the Middle East, the Al Sauds. The lavish airports of the 
Middle East have enabled architects of renown to design 
and construct some of the modern world's most impressive 
major public buildings. 

The three major airports in 
Saudi Arabia are King Abdulaziz 
International Airport in Jeddah, 
King Khaled International 
Airport in Riyadh and King 
Fahd International Airport 
in Dammam. Two of these 
airports have at least one feature 
that ranks as the biggest in 
the world. 

King Abdulaziz International 
Airport services the western 
side of the country, including 
Mecca, and is ranked by at least 
one authority as the world's 
most beautiful airport. It includes a special terminal, the 
Hajj Terminal, used for handling Mecca's annual influx of 
pilgrims. The Hajj Terminal, open only for one month of the 
year during the pilgrim season, is the world's biggest single 
terminal by area, capable of handling 80,000 travellers 
per day. 

King Khaled Airport in Riyadh serves travellers to the 
centre of the country. King Khaled is the world's biggest 
airport by area— a total of 81 square miles— the size 
of a large town. It also has the world's biggest airport 
mosque— a building capable of holding 5,000 worshippers, 
with room for another 5,000 in balconies adjacent to the 
building. The airport was built bigger than it needed to 

The Middle Eastern countries 
of the Arabian Peninsula are 
extraordinarily over-serviced by 
airports. For example, five of the 
seven emirates of the United Arab 
Emirates (UAE)— Abu Dhabi, 
Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah and Ras 
al Khaimah — have international 
airports; Abu Dhabi now having 
two with its second airport at 
Al Ain. The maximum distance 
between any two airports of the 
single nation of the UAE is 180 
km, with the airports at Dubai 
and Sharjah within 20 km of 
each other. 

First Impressions 7 

The cavernous duty-free shopping area of the King Khaled Airport in Riyadh. 

be. One third of King Khaled Airport has not been used 
since it was first opened. 

King Fahd Airport at Damman, opened in 1 999 to replace 
the run-down Dhahran International Airport, serves the 
eastern seaboard of Saudi Arabia, including the main oil 
producing areas and Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state-owned 
oil company. 

At the Immigration Desk 

Entering Saudi Arabia is likely to be more arduous than 
in most places. Of course experiences vary from visit to 
visit and from one immigration official to the next. But by 
and large, Saudi Arabia would have to be one of the more 
nerve-wracking countries in which to clear immigration 
and customs. 

Any number of stories can be told regarded the demeanour 
of Saudi immigration officials who might seem, to the 
traveller, to have been hand-picked for their brusqueness 
and lack of humour. Entering the country, you may queue 
up for an hour to clear immigration, and take another hour 
to depart the airport. You will be told to form orderly lines 
(something that Saudis themselves are not very good at) then 
continually be shifted to different lines. When you reach the 
head of the line, having perhaps been moved from one line 

8 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

or another, you may be told you are in the wrong line, and 
told to head back to the top of a different line. Needless to 
say, the correct procedure is not to remonstrate. You'll clear 
immigration eventually. 

Having received a passport stamp, the next step in the 
entry procedure is to pass through customs. This, once again, 
is more testing in Saudi Arabia than in most places. Not 
only does Saudi Arabia have an extensive list of prohibited 
imports, its customs officials are proportionately more 
diligent at finding them. Customs officials in Saudi Arabia 
are more to likely to ask you to open your bags than most 
places. Alcohol, as it is well known, cannot legally be brought 
into Saudi Arabia. Less well known prohibited imports are 
a long list of seemingly innocuous products such as games 
of chance like dice and backgammon, statutes or carvings 
of objects in human and animal form, as well as chess sets, 
radio transmitters and military equipment— not merely 
ordinance, but uniforms too. 

Do The Crime, Do The Time 

Alcohol-related products, including wine making kits, books about 
wine making or food items such as vanilla extract are prohibited 
items. A friend of one of the authors lost a debate with a customs 
official that a packet of champagne yeast in his bag (perhaps packed 
by someone else without his knowledge or permission) was really 
for making bread. A couple of nights in the slammer was the penalty 
for this offence. 
Plus loss of yeast. 

Porno photos, defined as naked flesh anywhere between 
neck and knees, are also not advisable imports. (If you really 
need alcohol, porno pictures and champagne yeast, obtaining 
them inside Saudi Arabia on the black market is a less risky 
method of procurement). 

Magazines with dubious political content are also looked 
at with disfavour, in particular those containing articles that 
could possibly be interpreted as critical of the host country. 
Video tapes and DVD's are likely to be taken away for on- 
the-spot inspection. The contents of laptop computers may 

First Impressions 9 

also be subject to scrutiny. Importing contraceptives is 
also banned, though they are obtainable over the counter 
in the kingdom. For a while after they were introduced, 
cell phones with cameras were also illegal. At time of 
writing, we believe this rule has now been relaxed. But 
it will pay to check in advance with your travel agent, or 
Saudi employer. 

Knowing all this (because you bought this book), you will 
not be carrying any of these items. When challenged, you will 
able to tell the customs official you have nothing to declare. In 
theory you should then pass through customs, possibly after 
a bag inspection, and escape into the countryside, thinking 
to yourself, "From here, things can only get better." 

The chances are, they will! 



'Come men of Riyadh, Here I am, 
Abdulazziz ibn Abdulrahman of 
the House of Saud, Your rightful ruler.' 
—Battle cry of Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia's first king, on 
defeating his rivals, the Al Rashid tribe at Riyadh in 1901 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 11 


According to most historians, human civilisation first started 
when settlements based on permanent agriculture replaced 
preceding hunter gatherer societies. Sometime around 3000- 
4000 bc, in an area around present-day Kuwait and northern 
Saudi Arabia, a tribe of people known as the Sumerians arose, 
moved north and settled in a then-fertile region between the 
Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq. 

Sumeria was probably the first place in which people in 
the world formed a self sufficient city state. Over a period of 
about one thousand years, the Sumerians invented advances 
such as writing, the wheel, the calendar, the seven day week, 
the 24-hour day and the 360-degree circle. The Sumerian 
tongue— unrelated to any language of the modern world- 
was probably the world's first written language. 

That civilisations rise and fall has been the mark of 
history. Sumerian society stayed more or less intact for a 
long time, but eventually succumbed to an invading race: 
the Akkadians based in Akkad, the city that later became 
Babylon. Culturally and administratively, the Sumerians were 
far more advanced than their conquerors. As the two societies 
merged, the Akkadians adopted most of the Sumerian 
customs, culture and knowledge with the exception of the 
Sumerian language. 

For a while, the Akkadians and Sumerians maintained a 
fractious relationship within their mixed society, reminiscent 

12 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

of the disharmonies between Arabs and Jews in the present 
day. The Akkadians spoke a Semitic tongue that is probably 
the genesis of the present-day languages of Hebrew and 
Arabic. As an identifiable race, the Sumerians, along with 
their language, were absorbed into Akkadian culture and 
disappeared from the pages of history. But their great 
civilising advances in administration, law, written language, 
agriculture and science survived them. 

Forces of nature rather than forces of man eventually 
put paid to early settlements in Mesopotamia. The history 
of many semi-arid regions has proved that one effect 
of long periods of irrigated agriculture is environmental 
degradation. Contaminated by salt, the Sumerian fields 
became increasingly unfertile. Forests disappeared, and along 
with them, the wildlife that Sumerians used to supplement 
their diet. Rainfall declined and Mesopotamia depopulated. 
Today's salt marshes of Iraq serve as a reminder of the long- 
term consequences of the process. 

While the area north of the Arabian Peninsula, and the 
peninsula itself, fell into decline, similar agriculture-based 
societies advanced in places like Egypt, the Indus valley, 
China and even the Andes. With the decline of Sumeria, 
the Arabian Peninsula, being as desolate then as it is now, 
is thought to have been almost uninhabited over thousands 
of years. After their pivotal role in the foundation of human 
history, the lightly inhabited lands of the Arabian Peninsula 
became best known as trading routes from the Indies, the 
countries of the horn of Africa and the Gulf states, to Asia 
Minor and Europe. 


Saudi Arabia is the biggest country in the Middle East and 
the 13th biggest country in the world. About the size of 
Western Europe and one quarter the area of the USA, Saudi 
Arabia occupies approximately 80 per cent of the Arabian 
Peninsula— a large slab of land, roughly rectangular in 
shape that juts into the northern seas of the Indian Ocean. 
Saudi Arabia is hot and dry, and water is scarce. Annual 
rainfall is low almost everywhere. The country has no 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 13 

Desert landscape is a common feature in Saudi Arabia. 

permanent rivers or lakes. The desert to the north, the Nafud, 
extends as far as Syria and into Iraq. In the south-east, the 
Rub al'Khali— the 'Empty Quarter'— is one of the most arid 
regions on Earth. In Saudi parlance, the Empty Quarter is 
simply known as 'The Sands'. Between the deserts of the 
north and south, arid plains of gravelly sand stretch across 
the centre of the country. The eastern seaboard along the 
Persian Gulf is mainly flat with rolling dunes. To the west, 
a range of low mountains parallels the Red Sea coast, from 
Jordan in the north to the hill country of the Asir region in the 
far south-west. Only here, near the Yemen border, is there 
significant rainfall. 

The total length of Saudi Arabia's land borders are 
4,400 km (2,700 miles). Bordering countries are Jordan, Iraq, 
and Kuwait to the north, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates 
(UAE) and Oman to the south-east, and the Republic of 
Yemen to the south. Saudi Arabia is also joined by a 
24-km (1 5.5-mile) causeway /bridge to the island kingdom of 
Bahrain in the Persian Gulf (called the Arabian Gulf by the 
Saudis!) The official border between these two states is set 
at 8 km along the causeway from Bahrain, and 1 6 km from 
Saudi Arabia. In addition to its land borders, Saudi Arabia has 
a total of 2,500 km (1 ,550 miles) of coastline on two different 

14 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

waterways. Egypt, Sudan and Somalia lie to the west across 
the Red Sea. Iran lies to the east across the Persian Gulf. 

Winston's Hiccup 

In the tradition of shifting lifestyles from Bedouin times, locations of 
boundaries are, for the most part, not precisely defined nor completely 
agreed. A most intriguing piece of haphazard cartography in Saudi 
Arabian recent history is its boundary with Jordan. At this point, Saudi 
Arabia seems to intrude into Jordan and out again for no apparent 
reason. According to contemporary legend, possibly apocryphal, this 
kink was due to some inaccurate drafting by the British wartime prime 
minister, Winston Churchill who was establishing the boundaries of 
the world one afternoon after a very pleasant lunch. According to 
this story, Churchill's hand slipped after he hiccupped from too much 
brandy, thereby bequeathing to Saudi Arabia several thousand square 
kilometres of not very valuable Jordanian land. From then on this 
tract of desert was termed by some as 'Winston's Hiccup'. No one 
has yet gone to war to right this wrong. 


With its parched and burning sands, for much of its history 
Saudi Arabia has been a harsh country that offered little and 
received little in return. At times, as its history unfolded, it 
could take advantage of its strategic position between east 
and west. At other times, it seemed a worthless piece of real 
estate, a desert peninsula leading to nowhere— a vast mass 
of desolate empty land sticking out like a blunt finger into 
the Arabian Sea. 

Despite the harsh environment, a small population did 
make a living on the Arabian Peninsula, built towns, and 
practised limited agriculture. In addition, the Arabs were 
traders. For over a thousand years until around ad 1 500, 
Arabia provided a major trading route from India and 
Africa to Europe. Spices were landed on the west coast 
of the Persian Gulf, loaded onto camels and hauled to 
present-day Syria to join ancient Phoenician trading routes 
to the Mediterranean. Goods were also shipped across 
the narrow straits at the bottom of the Red Sea between 
modern-day Yemen and eastern Africa. In addition, the 
Arabian Peninsula produced a few of its own products that 
were also shipped to European markets— pearls from the 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 15 

Persian Gulf and frankincense from the gnarled grey trees 
of present-day Oman. 

The period between the 7th- 10th centuries was the most 
powerful era of Arab history. This was a golden age of Arab 
literature, astronomy, mathematics and influence. Inspired 
by the exploits of Muhammad, the Islamic fundamentalists of 
the time spread the Islamic message as far west as Morocco 
and Spain, into Asia Minor, and to the Far East. 

As its power waned after the Middle Ages, the Arab 
world fell under the influence of a number of conquerors, 
in particular the Ottoman Turks who stayed on the Arabian 
Peninsula until the end of the World War I . Meanwhile, events 
elsewhere in the world diminished the importance of the Arab 
trading routes. In 1497, the intrepid Portuguese navigator, 
Vasco de Gama, became the first European to round the Cape 
of Good Hope en route to India. After that, ocean-going sailing 
ships operated by the great European East India trading 
companies, and later steamships, bypassed overland trading 
routes through the Arabian Peninsula. The Suez Canal, which 
opened in 1 869, put an end to the traditional overland trade 
routes for all time. 

In terms of its interest to the rest of the world, the Arabian 
Peninsula probably reached its lowest ebb during the 
19th century. Curiosity rather than commercial interest 
tempted a handful of European explorers to Arabia, 
particularly a number of intrepid Englishmen who absorbed 
the Arab ways and reported their adventures back home. 
The best known of them was 1 9th century's Richard Burton, 
the indefatigable traveller of Africa who disguised himself 
as a pilgrim, learned Arabic (he mastered around 30 or so 
languages) and visited Mecca by passing himself off as an 
Arab. These were the salad days of the Royal Geographical 
Society. The adventures of returning travellers were of great 
interest to the aristocracy of London. 

In the early 20th Century, this tradition continued. 
T E Lawrence, 'Pasha' Glubb, St John Philby and Captain 
William Shakespear, who all roamed the deserts with tribes 
of Arabia, were amongst other Englishmen who succumbed 
to the fascinations of the Arabian Peninsula. Typical of the 

16 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

breed, Shakespear was described in despatches as 'soldier 
by training; diplomat by profession; amateur photographer, 
botanist and geographer by inclination; and adventurer 
at heart'. 


The modern state of Saudi Arabia had its origins in the 
Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Peninsula. In 1 774, 

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, 
a fundamentalist religious 
leader formed an alliance with 
Muhammad bin Saud, a local 
ruler in the Najd area near 
Riyadh. Al Wahhab and the 
Al Sauds pledged to pool their 
religious and military resources 
to spread Wahhab 's religious message and Al Saud military 
protection to surrounding tribes and settlements. 

For a century and a half after the rise of Wahhabism, 
power in the area of present-day Saudi Arabia rested with 
three main family groups— the Al Sauds, the Rashids and the 
Hashemites— whose respective influence waxed and waned 
with the strength of their leaders. In 1802, Al Saud forces 
captured Mecca, which they subsequently lost, regained 
and lost again. By the end of the 1 9th century, the Al Saud's 


Named after its founder 
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, 
Wahhabism is a fundamentalist 
religion that does not take kindly 
to new knowledge. It preached a 
puritanical approach to faith and 
its religious practices. 

History of saudi arabi 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 17 

fortunes reached their lowest ebb. The tribe had retreated to 
Kuwait where they were given refuge by the Al-Sabah family 
who rule Kuwait to this day. Tradition and debts of honour 
die slowly in the Arab world. The Al Sauds returned the 
100-year-old favour to the Al Sabah family when Kuwait was 
invaded by Iraq in the Gulf War of 1 991 . 

From its low point in the first days of the 20th century, the 
fortunes of the Al Sauds took a turn for the better. In 1 901 , 
21 -year-old Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud 
(more commonly known as Ibn Saud) emerged from Kuwait 
to avenge the defeat of his father at the hands of the Rashids. 
Ibn Saud undertook an intrepid journey accompanied by 
about 40 adventurous companions, setting out by camel 
on a long trip to Riyadh with the object of reconquering the 
city. Against the odds, and greatly outnumbered by Rashid 
forces, Ibn Saud and his stalwarts crept into the walled city 
at night and overcame the defenders. 

After reconquering Riyadh and consolidating for a while, 
Ibn Saud turned his attention to the garrisons of the Turks 
on the Arabian Peninsula's eastern seaboard. In the early 
20th century, Ottoman influence was in general decline 
across the Middle East. In 1913, Ibn Saud's forces overcame 
Turkish resistance in the area around present-day Dhahran. 
At around the same time, the Hashemite family— associated 
with the enigmatic Briton T E Lawrence (aka Lawrence of 
Arabia)— was pushing the Turks out of regions on the Red 
Sea coast. The Ottoman cause was further undermined when 
Turkey aligned itself with the losing side in World War I. At 
the end of the war, with Franco-British troops in Istanbul, 
the 500-year-old Ottoman Empire was brought to a close. 
In the 1 920s, preoccupied with defending its own borders 
from the Greeks in the west and the Armenians in the east, 
the newly installed government of the Republic of Turkey 
was not greatly interested in recapturing its dusty domains 
on the Arabian Peninsula. 

The demise of the Turks left the Hashemites and Al Sauds 
as the two dominant forces on the Arabian Peninsula. Before 
too long, these two competing erstwhile British allies ended 
up fighting each other. Much to the chagrin of Lawrence, the 

18 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Hashemites were forced to retreat to Jordan, where the family 
established the monarchy that has continued to this day. 
By 1 924, the Al Sauds had gained control of Mecca and by 
1932, they controlled most of present-day Saudi Arabia. 
Ibn Saud then declared himself king of a new nation that he 
named Saudi Arabia, after himself. 

A Mutual Alliance 

The alliance between 'men of the pen' (the Wahhabi clerics) and 
'men of the sword' (the Al Saud warriors) has endured to the 
present day. The alliance is symbolised on the Saudi coat of arms 
as a pair of crossed swords beneath a script that proclaims God 
as Allah and Muhammad as the Prophet. Each year, to celebrate 
this alliance, the now much dispersed Saudi Royal Family holds 
a reunion in Riyadh featuring, as its centrepiece, a ceremonial 
sword dance. 


The new nation of Saudi Arabia was the size of Western 
Europe, stretching from Transjordan and Palestine in the 
north to the shores of the Arabian Sea to the south. From east 
to west, it spanned the Arabian Peninsula, from the Persian 
Gulf to the Red Sea. Only a few territories around the edges of 
the country— the present-day Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab 
Emirates (UAE), Oman and Yemen— escaped absorption into 
the new kingdom. Other than the vastness of its territory, the 
new nation didn't have much going for it. It was two-thirds 
desert, and desperately poor. But it did occupy a strategic 
position in the world because it commanded two major sea 
routes: the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. 

Developed by British interests in Persia, the first commercial 
oil well in the Middle East was brought into production in 
1908. To maintain the flow of Persian oil to market, and in 
particular to the Royal Navy, the British needed to secure its 
sea lanes in the Persian Gulf. Well before World War I, the 
British had forged an alliance with Ibn Saud. In return for 
keeping the western shores of the Persian Gulf secure for 
British shipping, Ibn Saud could, from time to time, cadge 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 19 

a little money from the British Treasury and arms from 
its armoury. 

Oil prospecting in Saudi Arabia started in the 1 920s when 
Britain's Eastern General Syndicate obtained a concession to 
explore for oil on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. They found 
oil. But having announced that oil had been 'discovered', the 
Eastern General Syndicate failed to develop the find and the 
concession lapsed. 

In the first half of the 20th century, Arabia lived a 
subsistence lifestyle. A small amount of trading and pearling 
was conducted through the settlements on the Persian Gulf and 
the Red Sea coast. Riyadh, near the centre of the country, was 
based on its large oasis. But overall, the climate was too harsh 
and rainfall too erratic to support a large population. Bedouin 
tribes moved their meagre flocks of camels, goats and sheep 
from one patch of skimpy grass to another. Water was their 
most precious commodity and the Bedouins jealously guarded 
their waterholes. 

Though Saudi Arabia was still desperately poor, 
unimaginable riches lay just around the corner or more 
precisely, a few hundred yards beneath the desert. Commercial 
oil production from the western side of the Persian Gulf first 

20 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

got underway in the 1930s, not in Saudi Arabia but in the 
offshore sheikdom of Bahrain, about 40 km from the Saudi 
Coast. As things turned out, the Bahrain oilfield was a small 
one by subsequent Middle East standards. 

Ibn Saud tried to get the British to take his oil interests 
seriously. But the Great Depression was underway in the 
West and the British weren't interested in acquiring a 
country that the colonialists of the 19th century would 
have snapped up without hesitation. Undeterred, Ibn Saud 
approached the Americans — at the time the world leaders 
in the oil prospecting. In 1933, the Standard Oil Company 
of California acquired the concession to prospect for Saudi 
Arabian oil for the bargain basement price of US$ 250,000 
plus royalties on oil produced. Aramco (the Arabian American 
Oil Company), a consortium of American oil companies, 
was established to find and develop Saudi oil. The world's 
largest, most productive and easiest to exploit oil fields were 
about to get underway, culminating in the Ghawar oil field 
discovered in 1 948 and brought into commercial production 
in 1951 . Approximately 280 km long and 25 km wide, the 
Ghawar field is the biggest oil field ever discovered and 
likely to remain so. Sixty years later, it is still in production, 
producing 5 million barrels of oil per day, or around 7 per 
cent of world oil supply. 

For all his Bedouin background, Ibn Saud proved 
commercially astute. Typical was his position in World 
War II. Saudi Arabia's commercial allies, Britain and the 
US, were on the same side against the Axis powers. In 
accordance with the traditional Bedouin practice of backing 
only winners, Ibn Saud bided his time, remaining neutral 
while he established which way the wind was blowing. 
Though Saudi Arabia allowed the US to build an air base in 
Dhahran, it remained uncommitted until the last days of the 
war. Then, in March 1945, with the allied victory in Europe 
only a month away, Saudi Arabia declared war on Germany 
and Japan— in time, the King no doubt hoped, to avoid the 
conflict but share the spoils of victory. 

In Saudi Arabia, royalties went to royalty. Since the King 
had conquered the country, he owned the country. At first 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 21 

the Saudi aristocracy spent their newly won oil money, as 
they knew best: on themselves. They built luxurious palaces, 
played the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, took many wives 
and did little to develop their country or improve the lot of 
the community. The infrastructure of the country and the 
education of its people advanced little from its state under 
the collection of disparate sheikdoms of 50 years before. 

The Kings of Saudi Arabia 

In 1 953, Ibn Saud died, leaving behind an enigmatic memory. 
To his admirers, he was the great uniting force of his country. 
To his detractors, he was a ruthless conqueror who was cruel 
to the vanquished, abused women, celebrated ignorance and 
wasted the country's resources in frivolous consumption. 
Whichever he was, after his death he left behind a country 
ill-equipped for the modern world. 

The first king after the death of Ibn Saud was his eldest 
son, also called Saud. King Saud's rule was marked by 
extravagance, a declining economy, an increasing gap 
between rich and poor, and ultimately social unrest. Saudis 
travelling within and outside the kingdom during this period 
earned an enduring reputation for ostentatious wealth and 
wasteful expenditure. 

After some years of Saud's erratic rule, the Saudi Royal 
Family progressively engineered his downfall. In 1958. 
King Saud was persuaded to transfer to his half brother, 
Crown Prince Faisal, executive powers in foreign and internal 
affairs. In 1959, Faisal introduced an austerity programme 
that, among other things, cut subsidies to the Royal Family, 
balanced the budget, and stabilised the currency. In 1962, 
Faisal was appointed prime minister. In 1 964, King Saud was 
forced to abdicate and Faisal was crowned king. 

During his reign, King Faisal strove to find the middle 
ground between his Western associates who urged him to 
increase the pace of modernisation and the Ulema — the 
Council of Senior Islamic Scholars — who urged him to 
maintain the status quo. Faisal cautiously introduced social 
reforms such as free community health care and the right of 
females to receive an education. Faisal's progressive agenda 

22 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

and fiscally responsible government received widespread 
support both within Saudi Arabia and outside his country. 
In 1974, Time magazine selected King Faisal as its 'Man of 
the Year'. 

Though King Faisal had international support, inside 
Saudi Arabia his reforms were opposed by religious 
fundamentalists. One measure in particular that earned the 
reprobation of his critics was the introduction of television 
into Saudi Arabia in 1965. Religious fundamentalists 
considered TV salacious (perhaps with some cause). When 
opposition to TV was at its height, one of Faisal's nephews 
was shot and killed by police after leading an assault on a 
TV station. In 1 975, in a tit-for-tat killing, Faisal was himself 
shot and killed by the dead nephew's brother, who was 
publicly beheaded for his trouble. 

After Faisal's assassination, another of Ibn Saud's sons, 
Faisal's half brother Khaled, was installed on the throne. 
After King Khaled died in 1979, the next monarch was 
King Fahd, another son of Ibn Saud. Fahd died in 2005 after 
suffering a stroke in 1995 and spending the last few years 
of his reign convalescing in a clinic in Switzerland. Fahd was 
succeeded by his half brother, King Abdullah. By that time 
Abdullah, in his role as crown prince, had already been the 
country's effective leader for ten years. 

On his coronation Abdullah — one of the last surviving sons 
of Ibn Saud— assumed the titles "servant of the holy places" 
and "custodian of the two holy mosques" (Mecca and Medina) 
to suggest his influence would extend beyond the borders of 
his own country and into the wider Moslem world. 


To understand what makes Saudi Arabia tick, one needs at 
least a background knowledge of Islam's history and beliefs. 
Beginning in the 7th century ad, Islam was the last of the 
world's great religions to get underway. 

Like Christianity and Buddhism, Islam was the inspiration 
of a single individual— the prophet Muhammad— though 
later scholars and clerics also made their contributions. 
Muhammad was born in ad 570 to a poor family in Mecca. 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 23 

At the time, Mecca was an important trading post for 
caravans travelling to Europe and throughout the Middle East. 
Muhammad started his working life as a shepherd. When he 
was about 1 5 years old, he was hired by a distant and older 
female cousin, Khadija, who ran a trading business into Asia 
Minor. In this role, before the end of his teens, Muhammad 
travelled as far afield as Damascus, impressing Khadija with 
his skills as a trader. 

When he reached 25, Khadija, who was 40 years old and 
a widow, offered to marry him and he accepted. Muhammad 
was Khadija's third husband and she was his first wife. 
Muhammad and Khadija had two sons who died before 
they reached two years of age and one daughter, Fatima, 
who survived into adulthood. Fatima became an important 
historical figure after the Prophet's death in ad 632. 

The Split of the Faith 

Islam divided into two denominations immediately after Muhammad 
died and even before his funeral. The Shia or Shi'ite sect believed 
the first caliphate to be Ali, the husband of Muhammad's daughter 
Fatima, and reputed to be the second person to embrace Islam. 
Present-day Shi'ites believe the caliphate line runs only through 
direct descendants of Muhammad via Ali and Fatima. (Shia or 
Shi'ite derives from a shortening of Shiat Ali, meaning 'follower 
of Ali'.) The Sunni sect, by contrast, believed Ali to be the fourth 
caliphate, with the three caliphates who preceded him all 
dying in fairly short order. The third of Sunni's caliphs, Uthman 
(ad 644-656), was murdered while at prayer and Ali succeeded 
him to the caliphate under dubious circumstances, with Utham's 
supporters alleging that Ali was implicated in Uthman's death. 
The disputants turned to violence which has marked relations 
between Sunnis and Shi'ites before and since. Both sides of this 
argument held the Qur'an as sacrosanct. At the Battle of Suffin, when 
the Sunnis showed up with verses of the Qur'an stuck on the sharp 
end of their spears, the Shi'ites were too devout to join the fight. But 
fighting soon resumed. In 661 , Ali was murdered in an internecine 
dispute. Later, at the Battle of Karbala in 680, Ali's son Hussein was 
also killed, but Hussein's own son survived, thus perpetuating the 
Shi'ite caliphate line. 

To outsiders the differences of the two denominations may seem 
trivial, though probably no more so than the schisms of the Christian 
Church. Whatever the respective merits of these opposing claims 
to the caliphate, over the centuries, rivers of blood have been shed 
contesting the issues that separate these two Islamic sects. 

24 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Before marrying Muhammad, Khadija had already 
accumulated a significant fortune. By the time he was 30, by 
trading on his own account, Muhammad had made himself a 
wealthy man. By that point in his life, he had the time and money 
to reflect on the meaning of life, and did so at considerable 
length. It was in these reflections, Islam had its origins. 

The Islamic code of conduct that Muhammad drafted was 
much influenced by Christianity, Judaism and the pagan 
religions that vied for influence on the Arabian Peninsula at 
the time he lived. Muhammad's new religion amalgamated 
elements of these existing religions with some bold new 
ideas of its own. Islam adopted monotheism, the central 
idea of Christianity and Judaism that there was only one 
God, rather than the range of Gods for different purposes 
of the pagan religions. To Islamic scholars, both Christianity 
and Judaism compromised their monotheistic character by 
clouding the status of God with quasi-god figures. In this 
view, Christianity with its Holy Spirit, the Virgin Birth and 
the Son of God, enshrined interactions between God and 
humans in much the same way as the pagan religions of 
the Greeks and the Romans. Islam, by contrast, stripped 
religion down to its barest essentials: one God and one major 
prophet— Muhammad himself, not the Son of God, merely 
a man selected by God to pass his word on to the rest of 
mankind. Since Islam drew from Christianity which itself 
drew from Judaism, Islam recognised both Jesus Christ and 
Judaism's Abraham as Prophets of God, though not quite on 
the same rank as Muhammad himself. 

Of all the established religions in Arabia in the 
7th century, Christianity provided Muhammad with his 
strongest influences. The core idea of Lent, for example, 
was installed as Ramadan in the Islamic calendar. Both 
Lent and Ramadan are periods of abstinence and religious 
introspection. The method by which the two prophets, 
Christ and Muhammad, received their instructions from God 
was also similar. Christ retired in solitude to a mountain to 
communicate with the Almighty. Muhammad retreated to a 
cave near Mecca and received God's instruction through an 
intermediary, the Archangel Gabriel. Christ's experiences 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 25 

were recorded by his disciples and incorporated into the 
Bible. Muhammad (who is thought to have been illiterate) 
later related the messages of Archangel Gabriel to scribes 
who then passed them onto the rest of mankind through the 
Qur'an, the Holy Book of Islam. 

Muhammad was undoubtedly a charismatic character 
who inspired loyalty and self-belief. The Islamic religion 
was simple and held appeal. Nevertheless, Muhammad's 
religious revival started unpromisingly. Like Christ before him, 
Muhammad found his life threatened by the establishment. 
The merchants of Mecca regarded Muhammad as a dangerous 
radical. But unlike Christ who paid for religious dissidence 
with his life, Muhammad retreated about 400 km (250 miles) 
north of Mecca to the city of Medina, where religious ideas 
were more fluid and the establishment less entrenched. 

Muhammad arrived in Medina on 24 September 622 ad, 
the date that is now the first day of the Islamic calendar. 
He announced himself as God's Prophet and soon attracted 
a following. He stayed in Medina for seven years, building 
his strength and debilitating his enemies by plundering the 
caravans sent north by the merchants in Mecca as they passed 
by Medina en route to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. 

Muhammad was a capable desert fighter and military 
strategist. His military valour and religious zeal won over the 
local tribes around Medina. His conquests of the Meccans 
laid weight to his declarations that God was on his side. Every 
victory over his enemy rendered Muhammad's claims to be 
God's messenger more credible. 

Muhammad established a religious power base in Medina 
but Mecca was the centre of religion in Arabia, and the 
most powerful settlement in the region. It was the place to 
which Muhammad had to return to if his religious ambitions 
were to be realised. In ad 630, Muhammad led his army to 
Mecca, captured the city and became Mecca's undisputed 
leader. Muhammad was clearly a winner and so was his 
new religion. Recruits flocked to the cause. 

Though Islam adopted beliefs from other religions, it also 
incorporated its own unique features to suit Muhammad's 
own circumstances and those of the wider community. 

26 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Polygamy and promiscuity were common practices in pre- 
Islam Arabia. Times were violent, and there was a general 
shortage of men. After his wife Khadija died, Muhammad 
accumulated several wives, some of them widows from 
slain followers. Thus equipped with female companions, 
Muhammad decreed that in the new religion, men could take 
up to four wives at a time on the proviso that they could all 
be kept in reasonable comfort. Islam recognised the rights 
of both parties of the marriage to divorce, stipulating that 
divorce could not be allowed on frivolous grounds, such as 
lack of looks. 

The religious day was set as Friday to distinguish the 
holy day of the new religion from Judaism (Saturday) and 
Christianity (Sunday). 

In Judaism of the time, women veiled their faces and 
covered their limbs in public to protect women from the 
prying eyes of men. Muhammad's rules of Islam merely 
followed this practice. 

A common belief of all the religions of the region — 
Christianity, Judaism, paganism and Islam— was that their 
gods dwelt in the sky above their heads rather than in the 
earth beneath their feet. Many religions have laid great 
store in objects that appear to arrive from the sky, as if cast 
down by gods. Meteorites, in particular, have been treasured 
as religious icons by a number of the world's religions. 
By the time Muhammad was developing the Muslim religion, a 
black glossy meteorite known as the Hajar ul Aswad, blistered 
by fire as it burned through the atmosphere in some distant 
era before coming to rest on the Arabian sands, had been 
sanctified for over 1 ,000 years as the most religious object 
in Arabia. Well before Islam arrived on the scene, Mecca had 
already become a destination for pilgrims who visited the city 
to pay homage to the Hajar ul Aswad. By then, pilgrimages 
were already a mainstay of the Meccan economy. Muhammad 
merely adopted reverence for the Hajar ul Aswad artefact for 
Islam. Today, this black stone, residing atop a metre-high 
plinth built into a small stone structure called the Ka'bah, rates 
as Islam's holiest icon in its holiest temple, the Great Mosque 
of Mecca. 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 27 

The Hajar ul Aswad is one of the holiest relics of Islam and resides within 
the Ka'abah. 

Five Pillars of Islam 

Muhammad laid down the rules of conduct that have survived 
to the present day as the five pillars of Islam: 

■ shahadah Bearing witness that there is no other God 

than Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet 

■ salat Everyone should pray five times a day 

■ sawm Fasting between sunrise to sunset during 

the month of Ramadan 

■ zakat Giving 2.5 per cent of one's assets to charity 

■ hajj Believers must try to make a pilgrimage to 

Mecca once in their lifetime 
The rules had various origins and served various purposes. 


According to Muhammad, the Archangel Gabriel declared that 
God had chosen him, Muhammad, as his messenger on earth 
for all mankind. That Allah is God, and that Muhammad is his 
prophet is the fundamental belief of the Muslim faith. 


There are various accounts for the requirement to pray five 
times a day. One is that Muhammad introduced frequent 

28 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

praying as a disciplinary measure for his armies. Another 
is that, Gabriel took Muhammad to Paradise where God 
demanded Muhammad and his followers pray 500 times 
a day. But prodded by Moses, Muhammad bargained God 
down to five times a day. 


The idea of fasting for the month of Ramadan was borrowed 
from the Christian idea of Lent. Muhammad's proscribed the 
holy month of Ramadan— 30 days in the 1 2-month, 354-day 
Islamic calendar— as the month for fasting, abstaining and 
religious reflection 


Saudi Arabia has no income tax, but zakat is a form of tax that 
looks, at first glance, to be a low impost (2.5 per cent), but 
really may be considerably higher since it is levied on assets 
rather than income. It is a tax of conscience that is meant to 
be paid by Muslims, and is not levied on guest workers. 

H W 

The procedure laid down by Muhammad was, and still is, 
that pilgrims make their once-per-lifetime pilgrimage (hajj) 
to Mecca where they are obliged to perform various rituals. 
The hajj has to be undertaken in the last month of the Muslim 
calendar, the month of Dhu al-Hijjah. This was, and still is, an 
economic measure to boost the Meccan economy. Those who 
have made the pilgrimage once in their lifetime are entitled 
to attach the suffix hajji to their name, a status symbol in 
Islamic culture. 


The Christian religion spread by ideology, whereas Islam 
spread by a combination of ideology, military conquest and 
trade. No other religion in recorded history spread as quickly 
as Islam. In ad 635, five years after its inception, the forces 
of Islam captured Damascus; in ad 636, Jerusalem and by 
ad 641 , Alexandria (then the capital of Egypt) . By ad 650, Islamic 
forces had reached Afghanistan and India in the east, and 

30 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Tripoli in the west. The Arab-Islamic empire then stretched 
an east-west distance of about 5,000 km. By contrast, 
Christianity took hundreds of years to become a predominant 
religion. The first Roman emperor who converted to 
Christianity was Constantine in the year ad 321 . 

Over the 1 00 years after Muhammed's death, Islamic influence 
expanded into southern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and what is 
now Pakistan. While political boundaries have ebbed and flowed 
in the intervening centuries, the religious map remains much the 
same now as it was then, except that Arab traders later added 
Malaysia and Indonesia to the Islamic club. 

Arab civilisation during the Middle Ages produced many 
innovations not the least of which was mathematics based 
on the decimal system and the concept of 'zero'. Arab 
numerology, now universally adopted, greatly simplified 
arithmetical operations compared to the system of Roman 
numerals that it replaced. (It is much easier to multiply 
338 by 8 than to multiply CCCXXXVIII by VIII.) The Arabs 
also developed algebra and trigonometry and excelled in 
medicine, astronomy and the arts. 

In the Middle Ages, Jews in Europe were mercilessly 
persecuted by Christians. In the light of present-day tensions, 
it would now seem odd that European Jews of the time 
welcomed the Muslim invaders as liberators. Jews of societies 
the Muslims conquered in Middle Age Europe were treated 
on the same level as Christians in the new society — as 
second-class citizens. For Jews of the time, this was an 
improvement. Christians by contrast, dropped down a peg 
in the hierarchy. 


Today, Islam is the second biggest religion in the world after 
Christianity. In 2002, 19.6 per cent of the world's population 
were Muslims against about 33 per cent for Christianity. Islam 
is also the world's fastest growing religion, principally because 
it flourishes in countries that experience high population 
growth. Few countries are expanding their populations faster 
than Saudi Arabia, which has an annual population growth 
rate of around 2 per cent. 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 31 

Visitors to Saudi Arabia cannot help avoid being struck by 
the strength of the country's religious belief. Islam makes 
great demands of its flock. Saudis expect their God to take 
a much more detailed and personal interest in every aspect 
of their life than do even the most dedicated Christians. By 
the same token, God imposes more stringent demands on 
his believers. 

Whereas in Christian countries, Sunday is the day for 
religious activity, in Saudi Arabia, religion is scheduled for 
every day of the week. Saudis make official contact with 
their God five times a day through their salat prayers and 
many more times by references to God that pepper normal 
conversation. When Saudis greet each other, shake hands 
in greeting and saying farewell, they do not say 'hello' and 
'goodbye, have a good day'. When they meet you, they will 
most likely say Al-Hamdulilillah ('Praise be to God'). On 
leaving you. they will most likely say fee man Allah ('May God 
go with you'). During a normal conversation, God may be 
called to account to bless you, your children, your parents, 
though normally not your wife. (In Saudi Arabia, discussion of 
people's wives is akin to prying, and out of bounds in polite 
conversation.) God may be asked to protect you {Allah iyatech 
stir) or leave you in peace (allah ihennik). God is continually 
praised {Subhamdallah) for whatever might or might not 
be happening. The Saudi Arabic equivalents for 'probably' 
and 'maybe' are Inshallah— 'if God wills it'— defining 
the Saudi expectation that God regulates the minutiae of 
everyone's life. 

Maybe atheists exist in Saudi Arabia, but almost all Saudis 
you will meet discharge their spiritual commitments whatever 
the state of their personal beliefs. Praying is politically and 
socially acceptable to a point where it is almost compulsory. 
At the personal level, relaxing the daily rigorous expressions 
of belief may be akin to a dangerous political statement in a 
land where religious police are constantly on patrol. 

Daily prayers are conducted at a mosque if one is in the 
vicinity. If not, other arrangements are made. Most business 
offices and public buildings have a prayer room. In the 
absence of suitable facilities like mosques and prayer rooms, 

32 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

a prayer mat pointing in the appropriate direction can be set 
down on any convenient level surface. 

In days gone by, the call to prayer was uttered by a 
religious functionary, called a muezzin, who would lean out 
from the balcony of the citadel of the mosque and summon 
all believers within earshot to join him in prayer. Nowadays, 
there are too many mosques and too few muezzins to go 
round to continue this ancient practice. Instead of muezzins, 
the call to prayer is made through loudspeakers by whichever 
worshipper happens to reach the mosque first. 

The call to prayer follows a set format that any visitor to the 
country will get to know since it is repeated 1 ,825 times in a 
normal year and 1 ,830 times in a leap year. The prayer call is 
repetitive. It has about eight words, the same words that are 
written on the Saudi flag. Freely translated, the message is 
'God is great. There is no other God but God and Muhammad 
is his prophet'. In Arabic, the message has a mesmerising 
alliterative cadence that sounds to the non-Arabic ear 
something like 'allah Akbar... al ah, ill illah illah allah'. 

A royal decree has proclaimed that no point in an urban 
area of Saudi Arabia can be more than 800 metres from 
a mosque. But Saudi Arabia is a large country, and not 
quite sufficient mosques have so far been provided to 
meet this requirement. The decree on mosque spacing has 
transformed mosque construction into a minor industry. The 

number of mosques increased 

For the sake of economics, b Y about 4 P er cent P er annum 
some cuts have had to be over the period from 1995 to 

made. Traditionalists amongst 2 004-about double the rate of 
the country s lovers of 

mosque culture have grounds population increase. By 2004 

to be disappointed with the there were 50,538 mosques in 

relaxation of architectural „ ,. . , . „ ,. . , . , 

oto^H^^o „* ^ n( « m n„„„ Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has 
standards of contemporary 

mosques. Though many also financed the construction of 

graceful buildings of the past about 2 ,000 mosques in other 
decorated with minarets , , , 

and Arabian arches can still countries and has built a large 

be found, some modern- number of religion-based colleges 

day mosques are merely and schools both at home and 
Portacamp cabins that look like 

construction huts equipped with abroad to introduce the young 

external loudspeakers. to the faith. 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 33 

One of the extreme effects of the 800-metre mosque 
spacing rule is audio-overlap. In some areas where three 
different versions of the prayer are delivered by three 
different believers starting at three different times and singing 
in three different keys. Non-Muslims can find the frequent 
calls to prayer exasperating, particularly the first one for the 
day at between five and six in the morning. No one in Saudi 
Arabia really needs an alarm clock. 


The most solemn event on the Islamic calendar is Ramadan — 
the ninth month of the Islamic year — the month that Muslims 
abstain from their earthly pleasures. Mandatory activities 
including fasting from dawn to dusk, giving up smoking and 
abstaining from sex. Ramadan is a period in which believers 
are expected to endure long periods of introspection and 
communication with their God. 

The rules of fasting merit further elaboration. During 
Ramadan, Muhammad prescribed that nothing should be 
eaten between sunrise and sunset, but with exceptions 
that Muslims can use to their advantage if they feel so 
inclined. Exempt from fasting are children, the sick, the 
old, menstruating females and travellers. What constitutes 

34 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

a traveller is interpreted fairly generously. To some extent, 
just about everyone travels somewhere each day. Therefore 
most people can mount some sort of an argument that 
they can be spared the rigours of fasting if they feel so 
inclined. In fact, not many Saudis try to escape their fasting 
obligations. During Ramadan, most Saudis try to comply 
with the rules. 

What Saudis give up during daylight hours in Ramadan, 
they may more than make up for at night. In recent 
times, the night hours of Ramadan have become a 
celebration of feasting and perhaps, overindulgence. During 
Ramadan, shops in places like Jeddah stay open all night. 
Supermarket complexes do a roaring trade. Packed restaurants 
serve food from dusk to dawn. According to apocryphal 
reports, many Saudis gain weight during Ramadan, their 
month of fasting. 

That aside, guest workers dealing with their Arab hosts are 
advised to bear the rigours of Ramadan in mind. Muslims 
forgoing their oral and other pleasures may be more tense 
and irritable during Ramadan than they usually are. Tempers 
can fray. Fewer community services are available. Many 
shops will remain closed during daylight hours. Schools 
work on reduced hours. Some business people, Saudis and 
expats, schedule their breaks away from the country during 
Ramadan. Not only does business slow down, but tensions 
during the month tend to run higher than normal. 

Ramadan and the Infidel 

The strictures of Ramadan are not imposed on non-believers 
provided the forbidden pleasures are practised discreetly. You 
can do more or less as you like in your own home, but foreigners 
caught smoking, drinking or eating in public have been sent to 
prison until Ramadan ends. (Once you are in captivity, you will 
surely abstain from these bodily pleasures.) 

Since the 354-day Islamic year is shorter than the 
Gregorian year, the months of the Arabic calendar regress 
through the solar years. Ramadan travels backwards through 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 35 

the seasons, from summer, through spring to winter and 
back to summer on an approximate 33-year cycle. When 
Ramadan falls in summer, things are particularly tough on 
believers. In summer, the fasting period from dawn to dusk 
is longer than in winter and the non-fasting period from dusk 
to dawn is shorter. In addition, the weather is hotter, making 
the obligation to refrain from drinking more trying. 

As the days of Ramadan pass, everyone looks forward 
to the new month of Eid-el-Fitr. The first three days of 
Eid-el-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, are the biggest 
holidays on the Saudi calendar. During this period, all the 
activities that were given up during Ramadan are resumed 
in earnest. These three days are a period of feasting, 
gift-giving and general letting go; the rough equivalent of 
Christmas in the Christian calendar. This is the most likely 
time that you will receive a gift from your Saudi employer, 
if you have one. If offered, the gift should be accepted, but 
not with over-effusive thanks. Gifts tend to be accepted in 
Saudi without tremendous fanfare. Generally, you are not 
expected to return the favour. However, it's not a bad idea 
to present some sort of token of your esteem to your Saudi 
boss when returning to work from a major break, like an 
overseas trip. 


Arabs may feel a sense of nationhood less strongly than 
say Americans or Germans. The principal source of identity 
in Arab culture is the family. The extended version of the 
family is the tribe. Beyond tribal identity comes the notion 
of the wider tribe — the feelings of Arab brotherhood and 
of belonging to an even bigger group — the Islamic world. 
A further source of identity is the religious sect to which an 
individual belongs. Given this combination of allegiances, 
patriotism to a particular country may rank a long way from 
the top in the hierarchy of belongingness. As a result, Arab 
countries such as Iraq, split across tribal lines, have made 
somewhat incoherent nations. Similar tribal schisms, perhaps 
less pronounced, exist in Saudi Arabia. 

36 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Underlying many of the troubles of the Middle East have been 
disputes of boundaries decreed a century ago by foreigners 
in remote cities such as London, Paris or Washington. In the 
Middle East, the most obvious and vexing case of boundaries 
drawn with little regard to the indigenous population was 
Israel, which was partitioned from the Arab world by the West 
without the consent and/or the knowledge of its Palestinian 
inhabitants. Israel is a particularly poor example of the 
modern-day fashion in some countries for multiculturalism. 
Nearly a century after the Balfour Declaration of 1917, 
which later led to the creation of Israel, the consequences 
of this unilateral declaration of statehood live on, no closer 
to a resolution. The Israeli problem underlies much of 
the tension within Saudi Arabia itself and the Arab world 
in general. 

Since the end of World War II, Israel has fought four wars 
with its neighbours. Egypt, Iran and Iraq have seen one 
revolution each. Lebanon, the meeting point of Christianity, 
Islam and Judaism was shattered by its own cultural conflicts 
and twice devastated by the Israeli invasions of 1 982 and 
2006. Iraq and Iran staged a re-enactment of World War I 
trench warfare in which the atrocities of World War I were 
repeated down to the gassing of troops in trenches. Like in 
World War I, each side fought the other to a standstill with 
little territorial conquest and massive loss of life on both sides. 
Almost continuous civil wars have also been fought within 
and across countries defined by lines on maps drawn with 
little regard to traditional tribal boundaries. 

It's handy to have a scapegoat for various causes and the 
Arabs have supplied plenty to the Western world. In 1982, 
Beirut was reduced to near rubble in Israeli air attacks. 
During the 1970s and 1980s, Libya, a desert country 
with a population then of about 3 million people, was 
accused of plotting against the West. In 1986, Tripoli was 
bombed into submission by the US with UK assistance 
for an incident in a Berlin nightclub which, it was later 
found, had been perpetrated by Syrians. Two Intifadas 
(uprisings)— the first between 1 987 and 1 993 and the second 
starting in 2000— saw Palestinian teenagers (described in 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 37 

the Western press as 'terrorists') throwing stones at Israeli 
battle tanks blasting away their rundown villages. Helpless 
to defend against the F-l 6-delivered missiles, helicopter 
gunships and tanks of the Israelis, the Palestinian teenage 
terrorists became their own weapons-delivery systems, 
detonating bombs strapped around their waists, thereby 
blowing themselves up along with their victims. Such is the 
desperation of life in the Palestinian territories. 

At the turn of the century, scapegoat attention shifted from 
Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the terrorists of 11 September 
2001, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda. After that 
we had the second Gulf War. 

If the West has been hard on the Arab world, the Arab 
world has also been hard on itself. In 1956, the Egyptian 
leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, floated the notion of a Pan-Arab 
alliance to annex the Suez Canal. But these aspirations of 
Arab unity were never fulfilled. Arab countries split too easily 
along their traditional tribal lines. No recent event typifies 
this more than Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. At issue was 
an ancient territorial dispute that could never be resolved 
to the satisfaction of both parties. Two claimants wanted 
to own the same piece of land under which lay one of the 
Middle East's largest oilfields. Iraq exercised its historical 
claims to the disputed territory. The United States saw its oil 
interests threatened. A massive force was mobilised. Iraq 
was defeated but not conquered and remained a thorn in 
the side of Western powers until the war of 2003, which saw 
Saddam Hussein deposed. 

Pan-Arab Brotherhood: Still Work In Progress 

In 1 982, the Gulf Arabs set up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) 
as a union of Gulf States along the lines of the European Union. A 
major objective of the GCC was to fend off Iran, which labelled the 
union as an "American Club". But the rival Arab states were unable 
to unify their objectives. At the 2002 GCC summit, Saudi Arabia's 
Abdullah, now king, then the Crown Prince, pondered the failure 
of 20 years of attempted Arab integration. Said Abdullah: 

"...we have not yet created a united military force that deters 
enemies and supports friends. We have neither achieved a common 
market, nor formulated a unified position on political crises." 

38 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Compared to most countries in the region, Saudi Arabia 
has been relatively peaceful. Throughout the conflicts in 
the Middle East, self preservation has been Saudi Arabia's 
dominant motive. The Al Sauds may perceive they have more 
to gain out of a divided Arab world than a united one. In 1 952, 
Nasser toppled King Farouk from the Egyptian throne. The 
Pan-Arabian aspirations of Nasser were not well received by 
the Al Sauds. The last person the Saudi Royal Family wanted 
to lead the Arab world was a king-toppling Egyptian. They felt 
the same about Colonel Qaddafi who, in 1 969, dispossessed 
Libya's King Idris in similar circumstances. The Saudis 
supported the Yemeni royalists in their fight with Nasser 
and supported the Christian Phalangists against their Muslim 
rivals in Lebanon. They provoked Iraq into action in the Iran- 
Iraq war, lending Iraq US$ 30 billion in military aid that was 
later used against the donors in the first Gulf War. 

Saudi Arabia's policy of neutrality has been successful 
enough. Since the Turks departed its territories almost 
a century ago, Saudi Arabia has never been attacked or 
occupied by a foreign power. All of Saudi Arabia's land 
boundaries pass through mostly uninhabited desert regions 
with mostly friendly countries. The other borders are its two 
coastlines. With the exception of the oil rich border with 
Kuwait— the Saudis' natural allies, the kingdom's boundary 
areas have little commercial value. Supported by the US, and 
with nearby nations once again at peace, the country remains 
in a sound strategic position against outside invasion. 


Wealth in Saudi Arabia is not evenly spread across the 
county. The Eastern Province, the location of the oil fields, 
and the country's wealth generator, is noticeably poorer than 
the central and western half of Saudi Arabia where most 
wealth is spent. 

The Eastern Province is Saudi Arabia's Northern Ireland, 
a centre of dissent within the Kingdom, with a Shia 
community of up to 1 5 per cent of the local population. Like 
minority groups in many countries, the Saudi government 
discriminates against its Shi'ite citizens both economically 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 39 

and socially. Shi'ites cannot hold public positions. They 
cannot participate in the judiciary. They cannot join the 
army. They cannot join the public service. Saudi Shi'ites 
may feel a stronger affinity with the majority Shi'ite 
populations in Bahrain and Iran than they do with the power 
group in Riyadh. 

Over 25,000 Saudis, mostly from the Eastern Province, have 
travelled overseas to fight for various Muslim causes, amongst 
them Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine and Afghanistan. Upon 
returning home, these warriors were treated not as heroes, but 
as troublemakers. Many of them were arrested as dissidents 
and detained in jail for long periods. In recent times numbers 
of volunteers to such foreign causes has greatly declined. 

Prisoners of Conscience 

Political and religious differences of opinion have long been the basis 
of detention within Saudi jails. Detention without charge or trial for 
long periods is commonplace as are floggings and other torture. In 
recent times, Amnesty International reports that the worldwide "war 
on terror" following the 9/11 raid has been the pretext for recent 
rounds of arrests. 

■ Dr Shaim al-Hamazani, Jamal al-Qosseibi, Hamad al-Salihi and 
'Abdullah al-Magidi were tried in September, having reportedly 
been detained without charge or access to lawyers at al-Ha'ir 
prison for almost two years. 

■ Dr Matrouk al-Falih and Muhammad Sa'eed Tayyeb, who were 
arrested in 2004 for calling for reform. Muhammad Sa'eed Tayyeb 
was reportedly required to sign a statement at the time of his 
release that he would not again call for political reform. 

■ Sa'ad Bin Sa'id Bin Zu'air was also detained without charge or trial 
from June to August, during which he was held incommunicado in 
'Ulaisha prison, Riyadh, after he was interviewed on the satellite 
TV station, Al-Jazeera. 

— Amnesty International Annual Report, 2007 


Arabs and Jews can trace their antecedents to Semites 
who lived on the Arabian Peninsula at about the time that 
civilisation was first emerging in the region. The eternal 
struggle for supremacy in the Middle East is between 
distant members of the same family. Arabs regard the 

40 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Jewish race as their delinquent brothers. The Jews regard 
the Arabs likewise. 

Jews and Arabs coexisted in the Middle East for centuries 
after the two races assumed their separate identities. Judaism 
remained a strong force on the Arabian Peninsula until the 
rise of Islam, but the advent of Muhammad was a watershed 
event in Jewish/Arab relations. When Muhammad was first 
establishing Islam as a state religion, those who refused to 
convert from Judaism were either executed or banished from 
Mecca. Much of the present-day enmity between the Jews 
and the Arabs stems from that time. 

The Palestinian dispute is central to dissent in the Middle 
East. On their maps of the world, Saudi Arabia does not 
recognise Israel at all. The land mass to the west of Jordan 
and to the east of Egypt is designated 'Palestine'. A particular 
problem from the Saudi point of view in the Palestine question 
was the backing of Israel by the United States — the trading 
and military partner the kingdom does not wish to offend. 
King Faisal supplied 20,000 troops to Jordan during the 
1 967 Six-Day War and was devastated when Israel triumphed. 
According to some accounts, after that King Faisal never 
smiled again for the rest of his life. 

During the 1973 Yom Kippur 
The Palestinian War, the kingdom sent troops 

Problem and weapons to aid the Arab 

Saudi authorSulaymanal-Hattlan states. In both the 1967 and 
analysed the Palestinian situation „„„ „ ,. , . , . 

from a Saudi perspective in 1973 wars . Saudl Arabla bnefl y 

an interview on the Australian cut off, then reinstated, oil 

TV programme Foreign sup p lies to the West. (Saudi 
Correspondent, aired on 5 March rr 

2003. The title of the programme Arabia also briefly cut off oil 

was 'Saudi Arabia: Inside the supplies to Britain and France for 
Closed Kingdom'. Al-Hattlan . , , . . . _^ 

commented 'The more the supporting Israel against Egypt 

Palestinians are oppressed during the Suez Canal crisis 

and the more the Americans f 1 956 ) 
support Israel, the more popular 

Osama bin Laden and his like For a11 that ' Saudl Arabian 

become. I think the core issue is support for the Palestinian 

Palestine. The trend of fanaticism cause has been ambiva i ent . The 
or extremism cannot stop at any 

pointuntilwereallylookseriously Saudis, who don't particularly 

at the Palestinian issue.' mind seeing other Arab nations 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 41 

disunited, have provided support to extreme groups like 
Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as the Palestinian Liberation 
Organisation (PLO). During the first Gulf War, in response 
to the Palestinian support for Iraq, the Saudis expelled 
Palestinians guest workers and cut off financial aid to various 
Palestinian organisations, including the PLO. 


Commercial oil production in Saudi Arabia commenced 
in 1938 at modest flows, and continued at about 300,000 
barrels per day through World War II. After the war, serious 
oil revenues started to flow into the Royal treasury and 
additional oil wells on the eastern seaboard were drilled. In 
1 948, a pipeline — the TransArabian Pipeline, more commonly 
called the Tapline— was built to carry oil from the Arabian 
Gulf oilfields to the Mediterranean port of Sidon, in Lebanon. 
The Tapline passed through four politically volatile countries: 
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The project was a 
technical success, but the Tapline crossed some of the most 
politically sensitive country in the world. In particular, the 
Golan Heights in Syria, became a regular battlefield between 
the Israelis and the Syrians. Over its working life, the Tapline 
was often out of action and sometimes sabotaged. In any 
case, after the development of supertankers, its use became 

The Qatif oil producing plant in Damman which lies north-east of Riyadh. 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 43 

uneconomic. In the 1990s, after a tiff with Jordan, Saudi 
Arabia shut down the Tapline for good. These days, oil is 
shipped by tankers from the Gulf to its various destinations 
around the world. 

Though the Saudi oilfields were originally developed by 
foreign oil companies, over the years Saudi Arabia bought back 
the rights to its own oil. In 1 950, Saudi Arabia negotiated a 50- 
50 profit-sharing arrangement with the US oil companies in the 
Aramco consortium. In 1 974, the Saudis increased their share 
of Aramco and in 1 980, assumed full control of the company. 

During the 1950s, oil was sold to a free market that 
established its own prices according to the laws of supply and 
demand. Saudi Arabian oil— abundant, near the surface, and 
close to the coast for loading into oil tankers— was cheaper to 
extract and ship to world markets than oil from most oilfields. 
Extraction costs of Saudi oil, according to one estimate, were 
US$ 0.25 per barrel. 

Since oil was sold to the free market, regulating the oil 
price directly was impossible. Oil was cheap. The way to 
control the oil price, the Saudis realised, was to control 
production. Since about a dozen countries in the world were 
major oil exporters, production controls could work if a 
significant number of these exporters operated a cartel. 

In September 1960, at a conference in Baghdad, Saudi 
Arabia, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait founded the 
Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) 
where all member nations would agree on production targets 
for the various producing countries and thereby maintain 
oil prices. Despite occasional internal political tensions, 
OPEC has held together to the present day. 

In 1973, using the latest iteration of the Arab-Israeli war 
as a pretext, OPEC shut down production, pushing up the 
price of oil by 400 per cent overnight, precipitating what in 
economic circles became known as the 'first oil shock'. Over 
the ensuing years, when production resumed, billions of 
dollars from oil revenues flowed into the treasury. 

OPEC operations weren't always successful. In the 1 980s 
and 1990s when members of OPEC exceeded their own 
production quotas, the oil price dropped from a high of 

44 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

US$ 40 per barrel to a low point of around US$ 5. A further 
burden on the treasury was a US$ 51 billion debt to the 
US for the costs of protecting the country in the first Gulf 
War from a rumoured invasion by Iraq. Added to this was 
US$ 30 billion that the Saudis incurred bankrolling the military 
efforts of Saddam Hussein in its fight a few years earlier with 
Iran. The cost of maintaining the Royal Family — estimated by 
some at US$ 10 billion per year— was also burdensome. 

Saudi Arabia does have resources other than oil. Its 
minerals include small amounts of gold, silver, iron copper, 
zinc, manganese, tungsten, lead, sulphur, phosphate, 
soapstone and feldspar. Saudi Arabia also has a small 
agricultural sector. The country's traditional crop is dates, of 
which Saudi Arabia is one of the world's largest producers. 
Elsewhere in the country, about two million tonnes of wheat 
was produced under irrigation by desalinated water and at 
a cost that is likely to be a great deal higher than global free 
market prices. The country even exported some wheat to 
other countries. This policy has recently been reviewed. Saudi 
Arabia is currently phasing out growing of wheat, instead 
securing its further food supplies by purchasing farms in 
wheat-growing countries. 

For all its aridity, according to census information, Saudi 
Arabia sustains a population of 7.4 million sheep, 4.2 million 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 45 

goats, half a million camels and a quarter of a million cattle. 
The south-west of the country, where the annual rainfall is 
around 400 mm (1 6 inches), is the main source of agricultural 
products. Coffee, fruit, vegetables and cereal crops are grown in 
these highland regions. But the aggregate economic results from 
these activities is modest. Oil, subject to its erratic highs and lows 
in price, is the main game and has been for many years. 

Even as recently as 2002, the economy was sagging 
under the influence of low oil prices and accumulated debt. 
Economic salvation came courtesy of the oil price rise that 
started in 2003. 

In 2005, in response to pressures from the US 
administration, Saudis from the government and Aramco 
announced plans to ramp up Saudi oil production from ten 
million barrels per day to 1 5 million phased over a number 
of years. This level of production hasn't happened, and 
according to most geologists is probably unrealistic. As things 
turned out, the 50 per cent production wasn't necessary — at 
least in the short term. The oil price peaked in July 2008 at 
around US$ 147, then went into a long decline. In February 
2009, with the price of oil at around US$ 35, Saudi Arabia, in 
its role as leader of OPEC, was endeavouring to convince its 
OPEC partners that salvation for the oil price lay in production 
cuts rather than production increases. 


Warlords have traditionally ruled Arab societies. The 
20th century has brought little change to this practice. Of 
the modern day Arab nations, only Egypt is a democracy, 
and even Egyptian democratic claims are compromised by 
low election turnouts and allegations of unfair elections. A 
mixture of emirs, kings, dictators, presidents, sheiks and 
mullahs — none of them elected— rule most of the nations 
in the region. 

Saudi Arabia remains an old-style kingdom still held together 
by a 250-year-old alliance between the Al Saud family and the 
reactionary Wahhabi scholars. The King is prime minister and 
appoints his own ministers, mostly senior members of his own 
family. Key government offices are all held by family members. 

46 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Most of the cabinet are princes, brothers, half-brothers, sons 
and nephews from the House of Saud. 

Ibn Saud's 30-year campaign to unite the country started 
a one-man population explosion. Two or three generations 
since Ibn Saud arrived on the scene, an extraordinary number 
of people can claim the royal bloodline. Two generations on, 
grandsons of Ibn Saud number around 1,400. Estimates of 
the size of the present-day Royal Family range from 5,000 
to 25,000 depending on who's being counted. Of this 
impressive tally, one hundred or so are senior princes, a 
few thousand are second-ranking emirs and sheiks and the 
balance, lesser lights. 

The institution of the monarchy, with its centralised power 
and long periods of reign, has stamped the kingdom with the 
personality of the current monarch. Under Saudi protocol, 
succession of the monarchy flows to the 'oldest and most 
upright' of princes. As a result, successive kings of Saudi 
Arabia have been increasingly old men. When he ascended 
the throne in 2005, King Adullah was 81 years old. Next in 
line is Crown Prince Sultan who claimed to have been born 
in 1928, though some authorities think he has exaggerated 
his youthfulness, and could be older. (No accurate records 

Land and History of Saudi Arabia 47 

were kept in the 1920 and 1930s when Sultan was born.) 
After Prince Sultan, the line of succession will depend on 
which of Ibn Saud's sons are still alive upon Abdullah's 
death. However, one of Abdullah's more radical changes to 
the political order has been the proposal that the monarchy 
will by-pass the remainder of Ibn Saud's surviving sons — now 
all octogenarians— in favour of his grandsons— described by 
The Economist as "callow striplings" in their sixties. 

Princes who married 50 to 100 wives in a lifetime are not 
uncommon in the House of Saud. Of all the kings who have 
so far sat on the Saudi throne, only King Faisal had fewer 
than ten wives. The sheer size of the Royal Family has been 
both a strength— in the extent of its integration into the 
wider community — and a weakness as princes compete with 
each other for positions of power. Given its massive size, the 
Royal Family has closed ranks pretty well to hold out against 
such quaint Western notions as democracy and the right to 
vote. One of the family's techniques of reducing the power 
of their own dissidents has been to get rid of them. In the 
70 years so far that the monarchy has stayed intact, it has 
publicly executed three of its own and privately disposed of 
a number of others. 

The Wahhabi religious order also has a strong role in 
government. Although Saudi princes select the King, their 
choice must be approved by the Ulema, which also acts as 
an advisor to the government on a wide range of issues. 

A Saudi answer to those who criticise the kingdom as 
undemocratic is to cite the complaints handling authority, 
the Majlis Al Shura, or Shura Council, appointed by the king 
in 1992. The Majlis, a committee of 150 delegates with no 
law-making power, serves as a forum to discuss the issues 
of the day. To underscore the alliance between the political 
and religious wings in the country, all appointments to the 
Majlis are ratified by the Ulema. 

In theory, all Saudi citizens can take their grievance to 
the Majlis, and meet face-to-face with the king or other 
members of the Royal Family. In practice, the Majlis system 
is impractical in a nation with one king and over 20 million 
citizens. Even though the king typically passes over matters 

48 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

to be settled to aides, in the time available, only a fraction of 
the issues that constituents wish to present are heard. 

One of the agenda items of the Majlis committee, but yet to 
be implemented, is the establishment in Saudi Arabia of a bill 
of rights. Saudi Arabia remains a country where full and frank 
discussions with the authorities are not encouraged. The 
Board of Grievances (Diwan al-Mazalim) established under 
the Chief Judge, has the judicial power to investigate and 
resolve complaints between the people and the government. 
Though represented as a public forum, it is widely believed 
that complainants assume a certain level of risk of being 
punished as dissidents. 

There are 13 administrative centres in the kingdom 
each with a governor appointed by the King. All provincial 
governors so far appointed have been princes from the 
Royal Family. In addition, large cities appoint their own 
municipal governments. Local affairs in smaller settlements 
are governed by a council of elders. 

The year 2005 saw a cautious experiment with democracy 
in Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, representatives for half the seats 
on the town council were elected to office, with the other half 
appointed by the Royal Family. Despite recent enthusiasm 
in the West for introducing democracy into the Middle 
East, attitudes to democracy in Saudi Arabia are similar 
elsewhere in the Arab world. Only men were entitled to 
vote in the Riyadh council elections. Voter enthusiasm was 
muted. Only 30 per cent of the eligible voters bothered to 
register. Only about 150,000 votes were cast out of an 
eligible enrolment of over a million. On the other hand, 
the 700 candidates competing for seven council seats in 
Riyadh joined in the spirit of the occasion and campaigned 
vigorously. Campaign techniques ranged from traditional- 
style hospitality dispensed from Bedouin tents to websites 
and campaign promises transmitted as text messages to 
cellphones. While Saudi Arabia hasn't pretended yet to be a 
democracy, it has at least placed a tentative foot on the ladder 
of democratic rule. Whether this timid tilt at democracy 
will satisfy the sometimes disgruntled ideologically driven 
sections of the population remains to be seen. 


'I do not feel obliged to believe that the same 
God who has endowed us with sense, reason, 
and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.' 
—Galileo Galilei 

50 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


Seventy years ago, one might have imagined Saudi Arabia 
as a country of impoverished Bedouins enduring a life 
of extraordinary hardship in one of the most forbidding 
countries in the world. In a few short years after that, oil 
revenues created the more prevalent public image of the 
Saudi as a playboy jet-setting around the gambling joints 
of Europe, then returning home to his austere land to relax 
in his air-conditioned palace. Both stereotypes still exist. 
Small numbers of incredibly rich Saudis still travel the world 
spending money like water. Half a million or so Bedouins 
still roam the deserts. But between these two stereotypes 
lie the bulk of the people, the middle class, most of whom 
live urbanised lives. 


Saudi Arabia is widely regarded as a wealthy country. This 
is a misconception based on the well-publicised antics of 
the very rich. In fact, before the oil price spiked in 2003 — in 
terms of GDP per capita— Saudi Arabia was well on its way to 
becoming a poor country. According to World Bank statistics, 
in the year 2001 , Saudi Arabia lay in 62nd place in a list of 
wealthiest countries of the world, between Slovakia and the 
Seychelles. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the country had 
been caught in a debt trap, with export receipts falling and 
population rising. Since then, things have improved as rising 
oil prices eased the country's financial problems. 

Who are the Saudis? 51 

Saudi Arabia's population tripled between 1980 to 2004. 
Its rate of population increase of about 2 per cent per year 
is high by world standards. In terms of long term sustainable 
carrying capacity, Saudi Arabia is greatly overpopulated. 

Saudi society's attitudes to family planning flow 

from cultural factors, not the least of which the cleric's 

interpretation of the Qur'an. Like Christianity, Islamic 

teachings on family planning— go forth and multiply!— 

were developed to suit the times. In the 7th century, 

large families were needed to replace people claimed by 

high infant mortality and to provide a steady supply of 

soldiers to be killed in battle. Over the years, the need for 

people diminished but the dogma stayed the same; hence 

the present population problem. The average size of the 

Saudi family, according to 2001 

. . „ , . .. , . , It is worth noting that birth control 

statistics, was 6.4 children with |n neighbouring | ran> a , so as an 

half the population under the Islamiccountrywhichalsobases 

age of 1 5. Millions of young its le 9 al s y stem on tne Qur ' an ' 

has got its net birth rate down 
Saudis will enter the job market t0 a | most zera , n | ran> famNy 

in the next decade, to face planning advice, condoms, pills 

„„„ „f t u„ ™„^„„„ „ »„. >„ and sterilisation are supplied 

one or the modern country s * * D 

J on request by the state. By 

most insidious problems— contrast birth control is illegal in 

unemployment of Saudi youth. Saudi Arabia. 

52 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


The family is the most important social group in Saudi 
Arabia. Saudi families are large with the oldest male 
being considered the head. Families tend to be more self- 
contained than Western families and more intergenerational. 
Three or four generations may live under one roof. The 
elderly are looked after by the younger generations and 
afforded respect. Saudi children tend to be indulged with 
not too much discipline within the home. Foreign labour is 
cheap in Saudi Arabia. Not very wealthy families may have 
an Indonesian or a Filipina housemaid. In richer families, 
children may have their own allocated servants. 

From a Saudi point of view, the ideal home is a self- 
contained villa away from the peering eyes of neighbours. 
Saudi houses are typically surrounded by high walls. Within 
the walled area, houses of extended families may be 
connected to each other in what resembles a walled estate. 
Not only do the walls keep out sandstorms prevalent in 
most areas of the country, in a figurative sense at least, they 
also protect the family inside from contact with the outside 
world. As a result, family members have closer relations 
with each other and probably less with outsiders than in 
other cultures. Family members get intimately involved in 
each other's affairs. Children are encouraged to stay in the 
home, and may well not leave it when they reach adulthood. 
Intergenerational Saudi families have a plentiful supply of 
babysitters, and generally a lesser need for them since so 
much social activity is conducted within the family and 
within the home. 

Social rules between males and females are immensely 
complicated in Saudi Arabia by restrictions and rules 

flowing from religious beliefs. 

Chatting Over Coffee 

In a National Geographic article, 
'Women in Arabia', Marrianne 
Alireza noted: 'For city women 
like us the only activity besides 
living communally within the 
extended family was leaving our 
quarters to visit other women in 
their quarters.' 

Social life, in particular for 
women, revolves around the 
extended family and close 
friends. Saudi women spend a 
lot of their waking hours inside 
the home chatting with other 
women in what in the West 

Who are the Saudis? 53 

might be termed 'coffee groups'. Some Saudi men even 
go so far as to lock their womenfolk inside the house from 
dawn to dusk 

A male visiting a Saudi household is unlikely to meet 
a female resident of the house. Dining arrangements are 
similarly complicated. Women and girls eat separately 
from boys and men. One of the authors once received a 
lunch invitation to a Bedouin encampment — along with 
20 or so other Westerners, both male and female. 
Arriving at the camp, men and women were separated and 
directed into different areas of a large tent that had been 
partitioned across its centre. Men dined on one side of the 
partition and women on the other. 

A whole roasted sheep was the main item on the menu. 
The sheep was brought into the male dining area on an 
enormous plate and surrounded by rice. The plate was 
borne by the small boys of the tribe and placed on the floor 
of the tent. Squatting on rugs around the roasted sheep, the 
male diners used their hands to tear off whatever meat they 
wanted to eat. When the men had their fill, the boys returned 

54 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

and carried the plate to the women in the compartment next 
door. After the women had cleaned up the left-overs, the dogs 
were given the remains. The order of feeding reflected the 
pecking order of the tribe — men, women and dogs. 

Saudi Children 

In a land where religious instruction is the core curriculum, 
the grip of Islam on the young mind is every bit as strong as 
its hold on the older generation. With a heavy emphasis on 
religion in their education, Saudi youths generally respect 
their elders, undertake their religious duties, maintain 
strong family ties and do not openly engage in premarital 

sex. By the standards of the 
West, the majority of Saudi 
youth is unrebellious. Children 
tend to find their amusements 
inside the home rather than 
'hanging out'. Though one 
place teenage Saudi boys like 
to gather with their friends 
is at the arcades in shopping 
malls, where behaviour codes 
are fairly relaxed. 

On the other hand, religious 
fervour can inspire young 
Saudis to commit desperate 
acts. Dozens of disaffected 
Saudi youths have sacrificed 
themselves for causes that seem incomprehensible to most 
Westerners. Fifteen out of the nineteen 9-11 highjackers 
were young Saudis. According to The Economist, 'Hundreds 
of young Saudis are thought to have joined the jihadists 
in Iraq.' 


Though Saudis have a strong sense of family, they may not 
have a family name. In naming their children, Saudis string 
together a long series of first names, using the word bin to 
mean 'son of (or bint meaning 'daughter of), followed by 

Not Very 
Rebellious Youth 

When the Saudi Arabian soccer 
team won the GCC cup in 
January 2002, young Saudi men 
drove up and down Olaya Street 
in Riyadh with music blaring 
from their car stereos until the 
police appeared on the scene 
whereupon the youngsters sped 
off. This display of exuberant 
youth, that would have passed 
unnoticed in the West, was 
considered noteworthy enough 
in Saudi Arabia to have been 
reported as an important story 
in next day's newspapers. 

Who are the Saudis? 55 

their father's name. Depending on how many generations 
they care to go back in the family history, this can lead to 
some exceedingly long names. For example, one of the 
powerful princes in the Saudi dynasty is Faysal bin Turki bin 
Abdallah bin Mohhamad bin Saud— a name that extends as 
far back as the great-great-grandfather. Including the Saud 
name even as far back as five generations means the holder 
can claim to be Royalty and thereby enjoy some privileges. 
Given the reference to Royalty in the fifth link of the chain, the 
name is unlikely to be shortened by future generations. 

An alternative to a naming convention that flows 
backwards in time is one that flows forwards. Saudis might 
like to be referred to as the father of their son's name. A Saudi 
man using this style of naming might be known as Abu Dhabi 
meaning the 'father of Dhabi'. For mothers, the equivalent 
nomenclature is Umm Said meaning 'mother of Said'. 


While the law allows a man to have up to four wives, the 
Qur'an states that rights to this privilege come with a 
condition that the man must look after his family members 
both properly and equally. In the modern world, this is a 
considerable restraint. As in the West, the average Saudi 
faces the same daily economic struggle that grinds down the 
rest of the world. Like kids from other cultures, the younger 
generation of Saudis demand their parents' full participation 
in the consumer economy. They need education, the latest 
in computers, music and whatever else is 'in'. In a country 
where women cannot work, most families have a single 
breadwinner. The customary complaint from polygamous 
husbands is the cost and time of attending to the needs of 
their multiple families. Four families expand the financial 
burden on the breadwinner by a factor of four. 

Other than for the wealthy, multiple families are no 
longer commonplace. The major exception is the Royal 
Family which practices polygamy to excess. While the 
Saudi laws on marriage and divorce stipulates a man can 
have only four wives, there is a loophole. The law stipulates 
a man is restricted to four families at any one time. Over 

56 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

a lifetime, there is no limit to the number of wives a 
man may have. Taking advantage of this oversight by the 
Prophet, over the course of their lives, Saudi princes have 
taken an extraordinary number of wives. Following the 
example of their father, Ibn Saud, princes and kings of 
Saudi Arabia have spent much of their spare time marrying 
and divorcing women at will, and producing an immense 
number of royal children in the process. Marriage on 
this scale is expensive, but since the Royal Family is 
in personal charge of the country's treasury, money 
had proved no object in this pursuit of regal fecundity. 
The Royals can afford as many children as they like 
from as many wives they feel like taking. An extended 
Saudi Royal Family numbering thousands has been 
the consequence. 

Although individuals are theoretically entitled to select 
their own marriage partners, most marriages are arranged 
between the respective families. Saudis don't marry their 
siblings, but marriage to a first cousin is considered desirable. 
Expatriates working in Saudi Arabia in the medical profession 
have reported frequent cases where intermarrying within 
extended families has compromised health of progeny 
through inbreeding. 

Low Divorce Rates 

The ease with which Arab men can divorce their wives has received 
wide publicity in the West. Much quoted are the divorce laws where all 
a man has to do is tell his wife 'I divorce you' three times and it's all 
over. This is not quite the way things are meant to work out in theory. 
The Qur'an allows divorce, but decrees that partners to a marriage 
are not divorced for frivolous reasons. Also, in theory at least, under 
Shariah Law, women can themselves initiate divorce proceedings. 
But in the real world, instances of women divorcing their husbands 
are rare. Despite the liberal divorce laws, outside the Royal Family 
where it is endemic, divorce isn't commonplace in Saudi Arabia. In 
fact, statistics show that divorce is less common in Saudi Arabia than 
in most Western countries. 

As in many societies, attitudes to virtue are quite different 
for men and women. Saudis put a monetary value on the 

Who are the Saudis? 57 

intact bridal state. Virginity amongst unmarried women is 
highly prized, some would say essential. Top bride prices 
are paid for virgins. Divorcees and widows attract smaller 
amounts. Unmarried non-virginity is in limited demand and 
can sometimes be life-threatening. By contrast, virginity 
amongst unmarried men isn't a consideration. 

Attitudes of men to women are closely related to questions 
of honour and shame. To the great disadvantage of Saudi 
women, Saudi men see themselves as the fearless upholders 
of the female virtue. At issue here is the Arab question of 
honour, and its opposite number— shame. The concept of 
shame in Saudi Arabia differs from the equivalent idea in 
the West. In Saudi Arabia, shame describes the state of mind 
in a man whose 'honour' is besmirched not by his own 
behaviour but by the indiscretion (alleged or otherwise) of 
a close relative. A typical 'crime' committed by a woman 
bringing shame on the menfolk of her family is consorting 
with a man outside the family group. 

Men who think nothing of taking concubines and wives 
a third of their age impose extraordinary punishment on 
women whose 'honour' has been 'besmirched' by men just 
like themselves. Women can have 'justice' exacted by male 
family members with little interference from the justice 
system. Killings of alleged female adulterers are rarely 
reported. Particularly in rural areas beyond the reach of 
the authorities, punishment for adultery becomes a private 
matter of family honour. The counterpart male adulterer is 
much more likely to get off than the female. 

Associated with adultery is the thorny issue of rape. Rape 
victims are similarly shunned for the 'dishonour' that their 
unwilling participation in a crime brings to their families 
through their diminished status and compromised marital 
prospects. Though the kingdom provides the death penalty 
for rapists, to make her case, a raped woman has to present 
in court four upright Muslim men as witnesses to the crime. If 
she is unable to produce four honest voyeurs who happened 
to be in attendance when the crime was committed, she 
may be charged with slander and receive punishment 
additional to that which has already been received at the 

58 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

hands of the rapist. Since the level of proof is so onerous, 
rape cases brought by plaintiffs are exceedingly rare in 
Saudi Arabia. 

Rape Victim Punished 

A 23-year-old unmarried woman unwisely accepted an offer of a 
ride from a male car driver. The man took her to a rest house east 
of Jeddah where he and his four friends assaulted her all night long. 
Afterward, when she fell pregnant she tried to abort the foetus. When 
that failed she requested an abortion at King Fahd Hospital. By that 
time she was eight weeks pregnant. Report to the authorities, was 
then charged with adultery and attempting to procure an abortion. 
The District Court in Jeddah found her guilty and sentenced her to one 
year's prison and 100 lashes. According to the ruling, the woman will 
be sent to a jail outside Jeddah to spend her time and will be lashed 
after delivery of her baby who will take the mother's last name. 

— From Saudi Gazette, February 2009 

The status of women in Saudi society has earned 
widespread condemnation elsewhere in the world. The 
double standard so objectionable to women liberationists 
world-wide is alive and well in Saudi Arabia. Under strict 
interpretation of Shariah Law, a woman is meant to have 
the same legal rights as men. But in reality, women have 
difficulty obtaining their rights under a legal system run 
entirely by male clerics. 

As the world moves into the 21st century, are there any 
signs of change of these 7th century attitudes? Possibly some. 
In recent times, young men and women have used modern 
technology in ingenious ways to circumvent Saudi Arabia's 
restriction on sexes. Pickup trucks of teenage boys and young 
men cruise the streets, pulling up beside chauffeur-driven 
cars full of girls covered from head to toe in abayas, their 
faces obscured by veils. Windows are wound down. Scraps of 
papers with cellphone numbers of the hopeful romantics are 
interchanged through the open windows. The cars drive off. 
The phones get busy. Text messages are sent and received. 
Contact has been made. The two parties speak to each other 
on their phones. But the next step, an actual meeting, is 
more hazardous. 

Who are the Saudis? 59 

As a footnote on this subject, we have noted that an 
Internet dating service (allegedly) exists for Saudi Arabia 
( The authors can't claim any 
personal experience with the success or otherwise of this 
system, but it does seem remarkable, given the prevailing 
cultural mores on female virtue, that such a service could 
exist in Saudi Arabia, let alone prosper 


The activities of Saudi Arabia's women are highly restricted, 
particularly outside the home. The street is the domain of 
men. To travel beyond their doorstep in saudi Arabia, a 
woman needs the permission of a male guardian— called 
a mahram— and generally the father or husband. Women 
in the street are usually on a mission, usually a shopping 
expedition. Otherwise, they are encouraged to stay indoors 
and avoid casual contact with strangers. Operating in pairs 
and threesomes and covered in abayas, women tread lightly 
through the outside world, flitting like wraiths amongst the 
shadows of the background. 

Within the home, people familiar with the workings of Saudi 
families may claim that women may wield more influence 
than appears apparent from a Westerner's viewpoint. Strong- 
minded women may, for example, influence the behaviour 

Saudi women in black abayas out on the street. 

60 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

of their menfolk by determining the careers of their sons. 
But mostly, the role of women is subsidiary. 

The popular Western view that Muslim women hold 
diminished rights is quite at odds with official Muslim PR on 
this subject. The Muslim website, (http://, carries an article entitled 'Women's 
Liberation Through Islam' in which is described the Muslim 
take on gender equality in Saudi Arabia. According to this 
account, women are meant to enjoy equal status with men, 
the right to choose their own religion, the right to choose 
their own husband, and the right to vote. In the real world of 
Saudi Arabian street-life, these claims ring hollow. According 
to most other accounts, the reality for Saudi women is far 
more restricted. Most women marry partners selected by 
their families. The Muslim religion is compulsory. Women 
have no say in the affairs of state. In Saudi Arabia, few rights 
to vote exist for men, and none at all for women. 

The stultifying boredom of women's earthly role in Saudi 
society was described in the biography Princess by Jean P 
Sassoon, a book claiming to describe the true-life story of a 
member of the House of Saud who told her tale under the 
pseudonym 'Princess Sultana'. The book describes how 
royal women lived in a closed society where they had 
absolutely nothing to do from one day to the next. A retinue 
of domestic help looked after the chores and the high-born 
women were not permitted to engage in any form of outside 
work, even voluntary work. 

Princess Sultana and her female companions were 
encouraged to remain in their palaces. Princess Sultana and 
her contemporaries felt like captives inside their opulent 
palaces— golden birds in gilded cages— from which they were 
rarely released by husbands they hardly knew. Husbands, by 
contrast, were out and about, doing business with each other 
and casually marrying and divorcing other women whose 
existence the principal wife might only suspect. 

According to Sassoon 's account, some cast-off wives turned 
to tranquillizers and drugs to alleviate their boredom. Others 
got into more serious trouble. Princess Sultana recounts how 
a group of such women arranged trysts with foreign men in 

Who are the Saudis? 61 

one of the many houses owned by their husbands. They were 
caught. Charged with besmirching the honour of the family, 
one of the unfaithful wives was weighed down with chains 
and drowned in the family swimming pool after a 'trial' 
conducted by the male members of her family. Another was 
put into lifetime solitary confinement in a darkened room 
within a family house where, in short time, she went crazy 
and committed suicide. 

Some Saudis have disputed the account of Princess 
Sultana. Defenders of the Saudi Arabian way of life, claim 
that 'Princess' is sensationalism, written by a woman's rights 
author for Western consumption with the express purpose of 
making money. There is no question that the book has made 
money. In fact, a sequel made even more money; then, for 
good measure, a third book was published. 

As usual in this enigmatic country, the truth is hard to 
determine and the right balance is hard to strike. For those 
who want to hear the opposite viewpoint— that all is, in fact, 
well between womanhood and Saudi culture — an alternative 
is the book At the Drop of a Veil by Marianne Alireza. The book 
is a personalised description of an American women living in 
Saudi Arabia and married to a Saudi man— an arrangement 
that, according to the author, was highly satisfactory. 

The most widely reported execution of a high ranking 
female for a sexual transgression was in 1 978 when Princess 
Mishaal, grand niece of the then reigning monarch King 
Khaled, was put to death. Princess Mishaal, who had by the 
age of 1 7 already undergone an arranged marriage and had 
then been casually divorced, had fallen in love with a young 
man who requested her hand in marriage. But the House of 
Saud withheld its permission for this union. Princess Mishaal 
defied her family. She met her suitor, Khalid Mullalal in a 
Jeddah Hotel; but she was recognised and caught. Both were 
tried and privately executed in a car park in Jeddah. She was 
shot and he was beheaded. This was an 'honour killing' to 
avenge a perceived slight that had been perpetrated on the 
Royal Family. There was no trial, but there did happen to be 
a TV camera on location. The story made news in the BBC 
documentary Death of a Princess that the House of Saud 

62 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

subsequently spent about US$ 500 million unsuccessfully 
trying to suppress. 


The Muslim religion has had a tough time defining the precise 
status of women either on earth or in heaven. Women are 
expected to embrace the Muslim faith, but the Saudi clergy 
has not quite decided whether or not women should be 
admitted to mosques, or whether they should be restricted 
to pray at home. After 1 ,400 years of debate, this issue 
seems to be decided on an ad hoc basis. In some mosques, 
women are allowed to pray with men in a common area in 
which the two sexes are obliged to make minimum contact. 
In other mosques, women are allocated to a secondary area. 
For some other mosques, female participation is excluded 
completely. If they are allowed inside mosques at all, women 
are cautioned that wearing perfume is prohibited for fear that 
an alluring scent might distract men from their devotions. 

Women and the Afterlife 

Like Christianity, the reward in Islam for leading a good life on Earth 
is a place in heaven. Like Christianity, Islam believes heaven is its 
exclusive province. The details provided by the official Muslim website 
are sketchy on the question of what goes on in the Muslim afterlife, 
but a commonly quoted take on the Islam version of paradise for a 
man is a place of cool breezes, running water, and the companionship 
of a plentiful supply of beautiful females (72 virgins per man being 
a popular estimate for this service); in short, most of the things that 
are missing from life on earth for the average male in the deserts 
of Saudi Arabia. Over the ages, this vista of indolence and pleasure 
has been enough to tempt battalions of desert fighters to sacrifice 
themselves for some earthly cause in order to gain the keys to such 
a paradise while they are still young enough to enjoy it. Of course 
what attractions paradise might offer the female of the species— an 
eternity to service the bodily needs of designated men— is not really 
covered in this picture of the future. 


The article 'Women's Liberation Through Islam' also claims 
that the Qur'an affords the right of women to conduct 

Who are the Saudis? 63 

business and own property. Maybe so. The idea has tradition. 
The Prophet's first wife was a wealthy woman who ran a 
prosperous trading company. But this right has also not 
been well recognised by the Wahhabi version of Islam. Saudi 
women have had a tough time obtaining their rights in a legal 
system that imposes additional burdens on the fairer sex. 

For most of its history, despite what the Qur'an has to 
say on the subject, Saudi Arabia regarded a woman merely 
as an appendage of her family. In the physical world, Saudi 
women moved through their community as anonymous 
black-clad objects indistinguishable one from another. The 
Saudi legal system treated women the same way. Women 
who raised legal issues in Saudi courts of law were such low 
profile creatures that their identity as unique individuals was 
typically at issue. In Saudi Arabia, establishing the identity of 
female claimants is an important part of the judicial process. 
Normal aids to establish identity, like passports, driver's 
licences and ID cards were unavailable to Saudi women. 
Since the abaya is such a ubiquitous coverall, photographs 
of Saudi women are rarely taken. Proving they were actually 
the people they claimed to be proved a real burden to female 
claimants trying to obtain their rights through the court 
system. Was the person in the court the same person to 
whom the contested rights should have flowed? 

Lacking an easy proof of identity, a woman trying to obtain 
legal rights, had to produce two male relations to confirm 
who she is. Saudi women have had difficulty in Saudi courts 
fighting false claims to their property and obtaining their 
rights to inheritance. Imposters and false documentation have 
been used to swindle women who have fallen out of favour 
with their families. Should the man deny that the woman 
in the court is his mother or his sister, the man's word will 
normally be taken. 

Signs have emerged that Saudi women, hitherto their 
society's invisible people, are acquiring greater rights to 
their own identities. The main advance is entitlement to 
the identity card itself. Saudi men are issued identity cards 
that are meant to be carried in public at all times. Hitherto, 
women were named as dependants on their guardians' 

64 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

identity cards, meaning that, strictly speaking, women are 
not allowed in public without their guardian male on whose 
card they are included. 

In 2001 the law relaxed a little to allow the issue of cards 
to a small number of selected women provided they had 
permission of a mail guardian. In 2006 this rule was relaxed 
some more to grant all women the right to their own ID cards 
with or without the permission of a male in their family. This 
is a major step forward for women's rights in the Kingdom. 

Old Habits Die Hard 

Commenting on the social advance of issuing ID cards to women on 
a restricted basis, the Minister of the Interior Prince Nayef bin Abdul- 
Aziz felt it necessary to state that the practice of recognising women 
as human beings with their own separate identity was no relaxation 
of Islamic rules but merely a pragmatic measure to fight fraud and 
forgery. Said the Prince, "The issuing of identity cards to women was 
dictated by the requirements of modern life." 

Given this sentiment from on high, the intrinsic right of a woman 
to her own identity was not really conceded by the ruling elite. In 
granting this limited concession, old habits died hard. To make the 
point that a woman's right to a separate identity had been recognised 
with reluctance and only to convenience the commercial world, 
women's identity cards were issued to their guardians instead of to 
the card holders directly. 

In other areas too, are women in Saudi Arabia gradually 
being afforded concessions. A small advance in women's 
rights in recent times has been the appointment of the first 
woman to the inner circle of Saudi Government. In early 
2009, in a major cabinet reshuffle, King Abdullah appointed 
Nour Fayez as deputy minister for women's education. 

Modern Saudi women with experience in the West 
sometimes express their frustration at the niggling rules of the 
male-dominated society. While in Saudi Arabia on business, 
one of the authors was invited to a dinner party where he 
met a single Saudi woman who had returned to Riyadh with 
a masters degree in psychology from Stanford University. 
During the meal, the conversation turned to the status of 
women in contemporary Saudi Arabia. After spending five 
years studying in the USA, how did an educated Saudi Arabian 

Who are the Saudis? 65 

woman resolve the dichotomy of the two opposing cultures? 
In answer to the question of what restrictions really irked 
her about her return to Saudi Arabia she said, "I don't really 
mind having my husband chosen for me by my father. What 
I really resent is not being able to drive a car." 

Though the Qur'an claims that men and women are equal 
in the eyes of God, there is some way to go in Saudi Arabia 
before the claim can be made that men and women are equal 
in the eyes of man. 


Recent statistics confirm that prejudice against women is 
still strong in Saudi Arabia, with less than 10 per cent of the 
female population holding jobs— one of the lowest figures 
for any country in the world. Twenty-six per cent of female 
graduates remain unemployed and many others are forced 
to take jobs in nearby Arab states. 

A handful of women in the country now own their own 
businesses — mostly dealing in specialist female products. 
Like the issue of ID cards, some degree of male influence 
over even that small incursion into male dominance has been 
maintained. Although women are allowed to go into business 
in a few restricted areas, the enabling legislation stipulates that 
a man must look after most of the documentation. 

Working Women and the Qur'an 

The more general ruling by the clerics who write the law in Saudi 
Arabia is based on an interpretation of the Qur'an that seems to 
twist a man's obligation to look after his womenfolk into a restrictive 
covenant on a woman's right to work. This ruling that women are 
denied the right to work comes from the section of the Qur'an which 
was written to define rights of women to rely on their menfolk for 
support and sustenance. The clerics claim that the Qur'an states the 
husband's duty is to maintain his womenfolk and the woman's duty 
is to look after the house while the husband is away. The English 
translation of the appropriate section of the Qur'an reads: 

'Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has given 
men more strength than women, and because men support women 
from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly 
obedient and guard in the husband's absence what Allah would 
have them guard.' 

— Qur'an, Surah 4:34 

66 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Only in specialist, specifically female occupations where 
contact with women is unavoidable, such as providing 
doctoring and nursing services to women, does female 
employment thrive. 

King Abdullah, when he was crown prince, hinted that 
restrictions on the employment of women might be relaxed. 
In all likelihood, further occupations will be opened to the 
participation of women in the future. Tentative steps have 
already been taken in the civil service where separate 
branches have been created that employ only women. This 
measure ensures that segregation between the sexes is 
maintained in the workplace — which can lead to interesting 
working conditions. For example, the Chief of Econometrics 
within the Ministry of Planning has a staff of 20 female 
statisticians. Modern technology comes to the rescue to 
preserve the rule that men and women cannot work in the 

Hanadi Hindi is the first woman pilot in Saudi Arabia. 

Who are the Saudis? 67 

Veiled Saudi women working in a hospital in Riyadh. 

same workspace. While the cleric's interpretation of the 
Qur'an prohibits face-to-face communication between men 
and women, nothing in the Qur'an bans video conferencing. 
Statisticians of opposite genders working in the same office 
talk to each other via closed circuit TV or through the intra- 
office Internet. 

Saudi Arabia's rules restricting the activities of women 
contrast with most of its neighbouring Islamic Arab countries. 
Bahrain, UAE and Jordan all provide their women equal 
educational opportunities, and permit them to work and drive. 
In neighbouring Bahrain, across the causeway that connects 
the two countries, women even work as limousine drivers. 

What a difference a border makes! 


The judicial system in Saudi Arabia is Shariah Law which 
combines the body of laws found in the Qur'an with 
the Sunnah— the collection of practices of the Prophet 
Muhammad — and the Hadith— the traditions and legends 
surrounding the Prophet. Like the Christian states of centuries 
past in Europe, religious beliefs and common law in Saudi 
Arabia are inextricably mixed. Saudi Arabia has adopted 
the Qur'an as its constitution. The Qur'an is not merely a 
religious text, it is also a lawbook. 

68 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Islam conducts far fewer debates than Christianity on how 
the rules written in its Holy Book should be interpreted. The 
Qur'an is far more straightforward and less ambiguous than 
the Bible. It is also much shorter. The English translation of 
the Qur'an runs to about 75,000 words— about the length 
of this book. 

Unlike the Bible — which was periodically transcribed, 
written in three languages by many different authors in 
many different time periods — the Qur'an was written at one 
time, in one language recording the experiences of a single 
individual. While the Bible has been retranslated frequently, 
not one word of the Qur'an's 114 Chapters, known as Suras, 
has been changed since they were first written. 

According to its adherents, Shariah Law was intended to be 
merciful. Compared to other systems of justice that prevailed 
at the time the Holy Book was written, it probably was. 
Elsewhere in the world in the 7th century ad, rough justice 
was widespread. In the throes of the Dark Ages, Europe, for 
example, was a lawless place. Such laws as existed were 
administered erratically by medieval courts at the whim of 
the Lord of the Manor. 

The major problem with Shariah Law compared to the 
world's more modern legal systems is that it contains no 
provision for self-improvement. No doctrine of precedent 
exists. No body of case law can accumulate to guide the 
next judge who hears a similar case. Each judge who hears 
a case decides the outcome based on his view of the Qur'an 
and that alone. 

The Judiciary is a kind of old boys club. Judges in the 
administration of Shariah Law are heavily provincial. More 
than three quarters of the 700-member Judiciary come from 
a region in the centre of the kingdom known as the Qasim, 
the home territory of Wahhabism. Nearly all the senior judges 
are from the Qasim region. Judges rule the courts. No jury 
system exists in Saudi Arabia, though the hierarchy of appeal 
courts is similar to the West. 

Decisions of the judges are known as fatwas. Their 
principal objective is to preserve Islamic purity. Shariah 
judges may issue/afwas on anyone, whether inside or outside 

Who are the Saudis? 69 

their jurisdiction, and whether brought to trial or not. The 
most publicised/aftva of recent times has been that of author 
Salman Rushdie— a sentence of death, so far not carried 
out, which was imposed by the mullahs of Iran on Rushdie 
for his book The Satanic Verses, which was seen to parody 
Muslim beliefs. 

The Qur'an is a key factor in a strange duality between 
the country's administration and its religious orders. Religion 
and civil administration overlap and merge imperceptibly. 
Saudi clerics paid by the government perform a simultaneous 
political and religious function. They are public servants, 
answerable to the rules of public service as well as to the 
Ulema. Clerics and government officials are mutually 
answerable to each other, and this is a source of tension 
for both parties. If clerics get out of step with the rulers, 
they may find themselves out of a job. If administrators and 
government officials stray too far from religious beliefs, they 
may find they have a palace revolt on their hands. 

Religion permeates all Saudi institutions. Saudi Arabia 
not only has a civil police force, it has a parallel religious 
police force— the Mutawa'een— a shadowy organisation in 
charge of purifying thought and action in the community. 
The Mutawa'een is God's police force. Its full name is the 
'Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and for the 
Prevention of Vice'. The Mutawa'een performs a similar role 
in modern-day Saudi Arabia to the Inquisitors of Christianity's 
most nefarious period. It seeks to impose its view of life on the 
population. It ferrets out the morally and religiously suspect, 
extracts confessions and brings the malefactors to court. 

The civil and religious police forces answer to quite different 
organisations. Though the Mutawa'een are meant to be 
accompanied by the civil police when discharging its duties in 
the community, often this does not happen. The Mutawa'een 
can come and go as it pleases, entering private property 
without search warrants and detaining whoever it thinks 
fit. It patrols the streets, enters homes to ensure that people 
dress modestly and that the laws of Islam are practised, and 
checks that shops close their doors during prayer time. During 
Ramadan, the Mutawa'een is particularly active, entering 

70 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

businesses to ensure that employees are not eating, drinking 
or smoking cigarettes during daylight hours. 

An extraordinary and widely reported event in Mecca in 
March 2002 illustrated the clergy's iron grip over common 
sense and humanity. A fire had broken out at a girl's school. 
Trying to escape the fire, the girls fled down a stairwell of 
the burning building to find the ground floor exit of the fire 
escape locked. Firemen managed to break down the door 
in time to let the girls out, but at that stage the Mutawa'een 
had arrived on the scene. The girls, the clerics determined, 
were unveiled and not wearing headscarves. The Mutawa'een 
cautioned firemen attending the scene that their morals 
would be compromised if the improperly-clad girls were 
released. Trapped in the stairwell of the burning building, 
on the wrong side of a door that the Mutawa'een refused to 
open, the doomed girls burned to death. Fifteen girls were 
killed and 52 others injured. The Saudis tried to censor the 
incident, but word leaked out to the wider world, alternatively 
bemused and incensed by the depth of the cultural divide. 


A common Western view of Saudi Arabia is of people who 
are jealous of the West. According to this stereotype, Saudis 
strive to be more like the West, and would like to escape 
to the West and live a Western life. Many people who have 
lived in Saudi Arabia have recounted the following story, or 
one like it. 

A Westerner is sitting in a plane, heading out of King Fahd 
International Airport in Damman or one of the other Saudi 
international airports. Next stop is London or perhaps New 
York. Seated nearby is a Saudi woman dressed in an abaya. 
She is encased from head to toe in a shimmering black 
sheath. Not far into the journey, the lady gets up from her 
seat, makes her way down the aisle and disappears into the 
aircraft toilet— never to be seen again. A little while later, a 
completely different individual emerges. She is elaborately 
made up, wears a dress with a revealing neckline, short 
skirt, nylon stockings and high heel shoes. She is clutching 
a Louis Vuitton bag out of which pokes the merest hint of 

Who are the Saudis? 71 

black material. This stylish lady wiggles her way down the 
aisle, slides into the seat that was previously occupied by the 
Saudi Arabian woman. She shoves her bag under the seat 
and orders a cocktail. 

A version of the story also exists for males of the species, 
who disappear into aircraft toilets dressed in traditional Arab 
clothes and emerge clad in smart business suits. 

There are various theories why these mysterious and 
possibly mythical creatures are inclined to enter small 
enclosed spaces to change into the outfits of alternate tribal 
identities in the tradition of superwoman and superman. 
One view, favoured by some in the West, is that Saudis are 
uncomfortable with their own identity. Proponents of this view 
hold that Saudis share a desire with many other countries in 
Asia, to adopt the ubiquitous Western cultural identity. 

The real reasons that Saudis slip easily between one culture 
and another may be far more pragmatic. Saudi women may 
wish to change their clothes merely because wearing an 
abaya is plain uncomfortable. Another reason is the fear of 
mistreatment on arrival in the West, or the East. Since the 
9-11 event in 2001 , and the subsequent terrorist scares, it may 
now be awkward, or even dangerous, to get around the streets 
of New York and other Western cities, dressed in a thobe and 
gutra— the apparel of a terrorist in a prevailing Western view. 

Geographically, Saudi Arabia sits at the boundary of the West 
and the East. Culturally, its position is much the same. Arabs 
have fraternised with people from neighbouring countries for 
a long time and adopted many foreign ways. Many Arabs have 
already forsaken their traditional clothes in their domestic day- 
to-day lives. In places like Lebanon and Egypt, Western clothes 
are common. By contrast, most Saudis wear their traditional 
clothes inside their own country. Outside the country, as they 
see fit, some adopt the identity of the destination country 
while others stick with their own national dress. 


Like other Bedouins, only two generations back, even the 
Al Saud Royal Family walked or caught a camel when 
they wanted to travel. Though the present generation of 

72 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Saudi princes live in palaces, members of the House of 
Saud have not strayed all that far from their Bedouin roots. 
King Abdullah, born in 1923, might just be old enough to 
remember a life of tents, camels and austere pleasures from 
the early days of his own life. 

Since the House of Saud has been running the country, the 
policy of mutual support between Bedouins and the Royal 
family has worked well for both parties. For their part, the 
Bedouins have provided the bulk of the judiciary, most of 
the religious leaders and much of the Praetorian Guard that 
protects the King and his entourage from various potentially 
subversive forces (including elements of the Saudi military). 

Despite the homogenising influence of globalism, much of 
Bedouin culture has survived intact, particularly in Saudi Arabia's 
more remote regions. Even in the 21st century, a significant 
nomadic population follows a close replica of the traditional 
Bedouin way of life. Modern-day Bedouins still pitch and strike 
tents, move their flocks about the countryside and generally 
behave in a Bedouin-like manner. On the fringes of the Empty 
Quarter— the desolate, waterless plains in the south of the 
Arabian Peninsula — the tribes of the Rub Al Khali (the Rashih, 
Saar, Manahil, Manhrah, Awamit, Bani Yas and Dawasir) still 
operate their traditional complex cultural mix of honour-based 
tribal lives of conflicts, raids and fragile alliances. 

Land Compensation Claims, Bedouin-style 

Bedouins have long lived by trading. Since they were traditionally on 
the move, Bedouins failed to develop a culture of property ownership 
common in societies which adopted permanent agriculture. However, 
when western influence arrived, some Bedouins cottoned onto the 
idea of land rights quickly enough and cashed in. Bedouin tribes, 
according to popular accounts, followed pipeline projects across 
the country, making financial demands on oil companies, claiming 
the companies were intruding on their traditional lands. The more 
audacious claimants, having learned of an intended pipeline route 
in advance, would set up an encampment ahead of construction 
and claim the pipe was infringing some ancient right. Appeals by oil 
companies to the king would normally be settled on the side of the 
Bedouins. Money would pass hands and the Bedouins would move 
their camps to establish their ancient civilisation somewhere else 
where a construction project was about to start. 

Who are the Saudis? 73 

According to some estimates, Saudi Arabia still has 
600,000 full-time Bedouins and many more part-timers. In 
modern society, Bedouins may wear their tribal affiliations as 
a badge of honour. Bedouinism is like citizenship. It carries 
financial and social advantage. To some extent, modern-day 
Bedouins can have the best of both worlds. They can enjoy 
their Bedouinism without quite making the full commitment 
to the nomadic life style of their ancestors. Courtesy of its 
oil revenue, the government has created a fall-back position 
for Bedouins, the markaz — small towns of concrete block 
houses— to accommodate Bedouins wishing to adopt an 
urban lifestyle and in which they can receive health care and 
their children can receive education. 

The success of the markaz programme has been mixed. 
Some Bedouins still prefer to stay in the desert to tend their 
camels in the traditional way. Others stay in town, perhaps 
reluctantly. Only a couple of generations away from life in 
the desert, urban Saudis with no obvious connection to the 
nomadic life may retain an affinity with their antecedents. 
According to one observer, "the first thing a Saudi does on 
building a house is erect a tent in the garden." 


Primary and Secondary Education 

Education in the kingdom is universal and free for Saudis, but 
not compulsory. Most Saudis attend kindergarten followed by 
six years of primary school, three years of middle school and 
three years of high school. In a country where the sexes are kept 
separate, schools for Saudis are not co-educational. Teaching 
tends to be by rote learning of facts. Long passages from the 
Qur'an are memorised. Intellectual curiosity incompatible 
with religious dogma is discouraged. Aversion to other religious 
beliefs is instilled at an early age. Saudi children are encouraged 
to recite sayings such as 'I will purify the Arabian Peninsula of 
Jews and Christians' (attributed to Omar the second Caliph). 
The Wahhabi manifesto, the Tawhid, is compulsory study 
that cites, amongst its teachings, that Allah has said never 
support the infidels'. The products of this educational system 
are steeped in religious dogma that does not, in general, equip 

Who are the Saudis? 75 

them to make their way in the modern world and hold down 
significant jobs. 


In 2008, there were 21 universities in the kingdom. 13 of which 
have been founded since 2000. Saudi universities include 
King Saud University in Riyadh, King Abdul Aziz University 
in Jeddah, and King Faisal University in Al Dammam. Other 
tertiary level institutions are the Technical Institute in Riyadh 
and the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in 
Dhahran. Various Western universities have campuses in Saudi 
Arabia. With this recent influx of new universities about to 
produce their first graduates, the number of Saudi graduates is 
set to increase sharply, with about 30,000 graduates expected 
to enter the job market in 201 5. One of the effects, the Ministry 
of Education estimates, is that the proportion of teaching 
staff in Saudi tertiary institutions will rise to about 40 per 
cent— which could affect the chances of expat workers seeking 
the same posts. On the other hand, only about 20 per cent 
of the country's graduates qualify in technical and scientific 
subjects— the skills that Saudi Arabia particularly needs. 

Education in Saudi Arabia is still strongly biased towards 
its Islamic roots. Curricula for all disciplines emphasises 
Islamic Sharia laws and the Qur'an, with a heavy emphasis on 
Islamic studies. Unemployed, and for all practicable purposes, 
unemployable graduates of religious colleges— numbering 
about 400,000 in 2005— provide a ready supply of rebels to 
trouble the administrators in modern day Saudi society. 

Prejudices in Education 

Women, according to Saudi authorities, are entitled to an education. 
A hadith of the Prophet Muhammad states: 'seeking knowledge is a 
mandate for every Muslim (male and female)'. Despite the fact that 
females outperform their male counterparts academically in Saudi 
secondary schools by a wide margin (with 60 per cent of females going 
onto college after graduation against 50 per cent of males), prejudice 
against Saudi females exists even among the educated, as evidenced 
by an editorial in the local Arab News. 'Is there any logical justification,' 
the editorial runs, 'for spending huge amounts of money on women's 
education when thousands of female graduates face the prospect of 
either remaining at home or entering a single profession?' 

76 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Expat Schools 

International schools teaching an international syllabus are 
available at the major population centres to accommodate 
the needs of dependants of the expatriate workforce. 
International schools inside Saudi Arabia are co-educational 
as they are anywhere else. Further details are contained in 
the Resource Guide at the back of this book. 


'A terrorist is someone who has a bomb 

but doesn't have an air force.' 
—William Blum, in his book Rogue State 

78 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


Rudyard Kipling, the great 1 9th century Anglo-Indian author 
once remarked 'west is west and east is east, and never 
the twain shall meet'. As many writers have observed, in 
no region of the world do Western and Eastern cultures 
clash so abruptly as in the great cultural melting pot of the 
Middle East. 

On the surface, the culture of Western consumerism 
seems alive and well in Saudi Arabia as in most places. 
People strive to build enormous houses for themselves and 
their extended families. Young Saudi men drive souped-up 
cars, patronise fast food outlets and wear designer jeans. 
Shopping malls offer a global selection of merchandise and 
trade long into the night. 

But at a deeper level, Saudi Arabia and the West are 
poles apart, divided by the fundamental source of Saudi 
Arabian inspiration and aspiration — Islam — the world's most 
dominant religious force. As a visitor, Islam is, to a degree, 
thrust upon you. Whatever you are doing in the kingdom, 
religion will affect some aspect of your day. Islamic beliefs 
underlie just about everything that happens in this country. 
Even though you may not be a member of the faith, its 
dictates will influence some aspects of your existence. 

As a guest worker, how closely you align yourself with 
the culture of the host country is your own choice, though 
some aspects, such as participation in the Muslim religion, 

Getting to Know the Saudis 79 

will remain off limits. Many Western expat guest workers, 
perhaps the majority, don't become deeply involved with the 
Saudi way of life. They arrive. They work. They get paid. They 
complete their contracts, then ship out to work somewhere 
else. Many expats work for years in Saudi Arabia without 
learning a word of Arabic and without significant contact 
with their Saudi hosts. Saudis have no problem with this 
attitude. A master/servant relationship has existed between 
the host country and its guest workforce for decades. To the 
Saudis, the guest workforce is paid good money to perform 
its task in their country. On the other hand, Arab nations 
have long traditions of hospitality. Saudis may well seek the 
company and friendship of their visitors. If so, your time in 
Saudi Arabia may be the richer for it. 


Importing a foreign workforce in the country to perform both 
menial and professional tasks has a history that extends 
well back before the discovery of oil. Saudi Arabia has had a 
long tradition of slavery. Slaves were taken (euphemistically 
termed 'harvested') from across North Africa in the days 
when slavery was considered an altogether normal activity. 
Slave traders tended to be Arabs, while slaves themselves 
were sourced from the northern African tribes in the same 
way the European traders took their slaves and sent them to 
the New World. Slavery was only officially abolished in Saudi 
Arabia in 1961— under duress from President Kennedy. 

Modern day slavery in Saudi Arabia might sound worse 
than it really was. Slavery in Arabia was not quite the brutal 
racially segregated system of some other parts of the world. 
Slaves were probably treated about the same as their modern 
day replacements, today's guest workers from the less 
privileged countries like India and the Philippines. Slavery 
has existed within in the lifetime of many present day Saudis. 
Amongst Saudis, a semblance of the slave owner mentality 
sometimes lingers on. 

Unlike the floating population of guest workers, slaves in 
past eras were not returned to their countries of origin at the 
end of their assignments. They stayed on. Descendants of 

80 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

African tribes have integrated and intermarried with Arab 
society to gain the same acceptance as citizens. The merging 
between Arab and African genealogy is imperceptible. Little 
racial distinction is felt between Saudi Arabia of different 
ethnicities. As a testament to this history, you are likely to meet 
Saudi citizens with skin colours from very light to very dark, 
and with features that range from Caucasian to African. 

The origins of the present expatriate workforce lay in the 
oil industry. The first oil industry workers, the geological 
survey crews, arrived in Saudi Arabia during the 1930s. By 
the early 1940s, after the first commercial oil wells were 
brought into production the first permanent expatriate 
workforce arrived to operate the country's oil industry. Saudis, 
at the time, were still nomadic people with no tradition of 
working in organisations, no skills and little education outside 
interpreting the Qur'an. Very few people were literate. 

So far, the Saudis have been unable to kick the habit of 
importing their workforce. For two generations after its 
discovery, Saudi Arabia has lived almost solely off its oil 
revenue, reinvesting some of the proceeds in development 
projects. To staff their industrialisation programme, 

Getting to Know the Saudis 81 

once more the Saudis turned to the wider world and the 
dependency on foreign workers continued unabated. In the 
60-odd years after the first oil field came into commercial 
operation and the country started modernising, the guest 
workforce is still at work in Saudi Arabia — in greater numbers 
than ever before. The total population of Saudi Arabia in 2008 
was 28 million of whom 5.6 million were expatriate workers. 
Two generations of Saudis have grown up in a country in 
which every fifth person is a foreigner — or in Saudi Arabian 
parlance, an alien. 

The majority of these aliens may, from Western eyes, be 
indistinguishable from the Saudis themselves. The largest 
single source of guest workers to Saudi Arabia is Yemen. 
Yemenis account for 10 per cent of the Saudi population, 
or about half the immigrant workforce. Other Arab people 
from Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt are also present in the 
kingdom in significant numbers. Arabic-speaking Muslim 
expatriates also come from Africa, in particular Somalia, 
which also provides a significant guest population. 

These countries have long been a source of labour in 
Saudi Arabia. In the 1950s, Saudi Arabia largely filled 
positions as teachers and doctors from places like Egypt, 
Lebanon and Syria. From the point of view of a Saudi 
employer, non-Saudi Arabs had the advantages of speaking 
Arabic and being Muslims. But over the years, other 
expatriate groups from many corners of the world, and 
speaking many languages and practising different religions 
have also been imported to work in Saudi Arabia. Major 
source countries for the Saudi expatriate workforce include 
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand, 
North America and Europe. 

Such a large group of aliens from disparate backgrounds 
might have been expected to strain the social fabric of the 
guest nation more than it has. As things stand, relations 
between Saudi Arabia and its guest workers are reasonably 
harmonious. The foreign workforce has exerted surprisingly 
little impact on Saudi society, though once in a while, guest 
workers step out of line and suffer the displeasure of the 
authorities. From the point of view of the guest worker, this 

82 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

is an outcome to be avoided at all costs. In recent times, with 
the rise of terrorism worldwide, guest workers, in particular 
Westerners, have become targeted by disaffected religious 
groups objecting to the presence in the Holy Land of Islam 
of the immigrant workforce of infidels. 


The status of guest workers fits an established hierarchy of 
Saudi social order. Your tier in the pecking order depends on 
who you are, your country of origin and what you have arrived 
to do. If you are visiting Saudi Arabia to keep an appointment 
with the King, you will get the red carpet treatment afforded to 
VIPs anywhere. If you are a diplomat, you will be granted the 
normal perks and respect that the service attracts. If you are on 
a business trip, you have come to a place with long traditions 
in trading; most likely you will be treated well. As a salaried 
worker of some importance in a multinational company, you 
will be treated reasonably. If you have come to work for a Saudi 
company, your status may be somewhat more ambiguous. 

An important factor determining your status is your 
country of origin. In Saudi Arabia, the hierarchy between 
guest workers from various countries and in various 
occupations is well established. At the top of the totem pole 
of privilege are the Saudis themselves. People from selected 
nearby Arab countries are next. High-ranking Arab countries 
in the eyes of Saudis are the oil producers— Bahrain, Kuwait, 
Oman, Qatar and the UAE. If you are a Westerner, depending 
on your job, you are likely to be afforded a status somewhere 
between the premier Arab states and the lesser Arab states. 
Arab countries not blessed with oil— Jordan, Egypt, Syria, 
Palestine and Yemen — rank further down the totem pole. 

At the time of writing, the status of war-torn Iraq is 
ambivalent. Shi'ites in the south of Iraq are the natural 
enemies of the Saudis . The Sunnis, who were in power under 
Saddam Hussein, would, under more normal circumstances, 
be the natural allies. 

Iran, a bastion of the Shi'ite faith in the Middle East, is 
also a traditional enemy. Saudis suspect the Iranians for 
fomenting discontent of their own population of Shi'ites 

Getting to Know the Saudis 83 

concentrated in the Eastern and adjoining Najarn Provinces, 
the closest part of Saudi Arabia to Iran. In Saudi Arabia, 
being a Shi'ite is almost akin to being a dissident. 

Next level down are Third Country Nationals (TCNs), also 
known as Asian and Sub-Continent Nationals. Of this group, 
office workers — very often Filipino males, sometimes people 
from the Indian sub-continent— fare the best. These people 
tend to be professionals in their own country who work in 
Saudi Arabia in less intellectually demanding occupations 
at better pay than is available in higher status jobs in their 
home countries. 

The bottom of the totem pole is a pretty crowded 
area of uneducated people from Third World countries- 
Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Thailand — working in poorly- 
paid labouring assignments and service jobs or assigned to 
domestic duties in Arab homes in which Filipina maids tend 
to predominate. Eritrean and Yemeni street sweepers are 
other typical occupations and nationalities somewhere near 
the totem pole's bottom rung. 


An assumption that people tend to make on visiting a foreign 
country is that people you meet are likely to be locals unless 
they look like foreigners. But not everyone in the country 

84 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

wearing a thobe can be assumed to be a Saudi citizen. Though 
to the Western eye, Saudis and non-Saudi Arabs may look 
much the same, there are some traditional differences in the 
patterns and colours of the gutra that may provide a clue to 
the nationality of the wearer. In addition, anyone working 
in a menial job in Saudi Arabia and wearing traditional Arab 
dress is almost certainly a non-Saudi Arab. 

At least half the non-Saudi workforce are migrants from 
surrounding Arab countries who speak Arabic and dress in a 
similar manner to the members of their host country. Non- 
Saudi Arabs tend to stay in Saudi Arabia for long periods and 
make a much larger commitment to their host country than 
First World expats who arrive on short-term assignments, 
bank their earnings in an offshore bank, then leave at the 
end of their contract period for another job somewhere else. 
Guest workers from nearby Arab countries — from places like 
Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Yemen— build their lives, 
businesses and families in Saudi Arabia where opportunities 
are far greater than their home countries. These people have 
effectively emigrated to Saudi Arabia. Yemenis, in particularly, 
run some of the largest businesses in the country. The bin 
Laden family, owners of the country's largest construction 
company, originally came from Yemen. 


In a melting pot society with many different cultures 
and languages, occasional conflicts are inevitable. 
Relations between the guest workforce and the Saudis 
may carry resentments on both sides. Ingoing perceptions 
are sometimes negative. Some Westerners disparage the 
Saudis as 'ragheads'— the not too respectful name for the 
characteristic apparel of Saudis and other Arabs. The Saudis, 
for their part, may regard their guest workforce as infidels. 

With the objective of keeping their employees out 
of trouble, most large companies hiring expats to 
work in Saudi Arabia issue a set of guidelines with 
their employment packages recommending how their 
employees should interact with the local populations. 
For their part, to keep a lid on conflict between themselves 

Getting to Know the Saudis 85 

and the guest workforce, the Saudis have physically 
separated the local people and the guest workers. On large 
construction projects, construction workers are typically 
housed in camps, which are themselves often internally 
segregated into racial groups. Large construction camps, 
housing say 2,000 workers, will have separate dormitories 
for different nationalities. They might have half a dozen 
mess-halls serving the main ethnic foods of those residing in 
the camps — for example, a choice of Western, Thai, Indian, 
Filipino and Middle Eastern food may be offered. 

Some visitors like to adopt the culture of the country they 
are visiting. They like to learn the language, eat the local foods 
and generally 'go native'. The flowing robes and headgear 
of Saudi dress which have evolved to suit the climate of the 
desert might seem the logical apparel to wear in a country 
where most people are dressing that way. But copying the 
Saudi dress code should be practiced discreetly, if at all. You 
can certainly buy a thobe for yourself at the local shop but if 
so, it's best worn in the privacy of your house, perhaps in the 
street, but certainly not to work. But guest workers are better 
to restrict the copying of the Saudi dress code to wearing 
loose-fitting clothes and wide brimmed hats, particularly in 
summer time. If you, as a Westerner, take to getting around 
in Arab gear, Saudis may consider that you are mocking their 
culture. While you are in their country, Saudis prefer you to 
act within the cultural norms of your country. In their eyes, 
your role is to be you, not them. 

Politically Sensitive Dress Code 

Expatriate English friends of one of the authors thought their work 
assignment would be a good opportunity to follow local fashions. They 
were working for a Saudi company alongside Saudis who sometimes 
showed up to work in Western dress, but generally wore their 
traditional thobes and gutras. The two English guest workers went 
downtown to get fitted up by the local tailor then one day, dressed 
for work in their newly acquired thobes and gutras. They were sent 
back home by their Saudi boss to change into their normal Western 
clothes. They did, but later persisted in violating this cultural norm. 
Next time they showed up at work attired as Arabs, they had their 
contracts terminated and were sent home. 

86 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


Women in service occupations such as teaching or specialist 
female occupations such as female health care may succeed 
in getting a work visa for Saudi Arabia. Other than that, if 
you are a woman seeking work, Saudi Arabia may not be 
the place for you. Spouses of foreigners working in Saudi 
Arabia who are not themselves working are termed 'trailing 
spouses'. Trailing spouses are mostly women, though 
occasionally non-working foreign men live in Saudi Arabia 
with their working wives. 

Occasionally, female dependents of male guest workers 
in Saudi Arabia may get work on a casual basis. But a 
certain level of risk, for both the employee and employer, is 
attached to the practice of working in Saudi Arabia without 
a work permit. 

Removing Women From the Workforce 

A multinational company in Saudi Arabia decided to employ 
some of its bored housewives as office workers. This was an 
unofficial arrangement and the women did not hold work permits. 
When the word got out to the wider community, a squad of 
Mutawa'een was despatched to investigate. As the Mutawa'een 
stormed through the front door of the office to determine if the 
laws relating to vice and virtue had been violated, the working 
women were bundled out the back, never to return to the 
workplace. The female secretarial staff were then replaced by 
men, mostly Filipinos. 

Subject to the same irksome restrictions as their Saudi 
counterparts, foreign women living but not working in 
Saudi Arabia are likely to be prone to attacks of boredom. 
Saudis impose similar restrictions to foreign women in the 
kingdom as they do on their own women. The Mutawa'een 
are aware that foreign women hold liberated views on 
life by local standards and take steps to restrict such 
ideas flowing across the cultural divide into the heads of 
Saudi women. 

One of the regulations in Saudi Arabia that most irritates 
expatriate women is the prohibition on driving. Though 
women are prohibited from driving in public streets, in 

The Khurais oil field began operating in June 2009, further 
raising overall oil production in the kingdom that has the 
highest proven reserves of oil in the world today. 

Families enjoy the sunset along the 
Jeddah Corniche near the Red Sea. In the 
distance is a fountain that shoots water 
upwards to heights of over 300 m. 

Getting to Know the Saudis 87 

some places, rules are bent sufficiently to allow foreign 
women to drive within compounds but not outside. In 
other places, rules are more strictly applied both within 
and without. 

Most of the civil laws in Saudi Arabia have been taken 
from the Qur'an. But it is hard to believe that God's 
instructions delivered to the Prophet Muhammad by the 
Archangel Gabriel in the 7th century in some cave near 
Mecca intended that women in the 21 st century should be 
prohibited from driving a car. But this is the interpretation 
the clerics have made. 

One of the consequences of the restriction on women 
drivers is a work scheme for chauffeurs. A March 2002 issue 
of The Economist reported there were approximately half 
a million chauffeurs in the kingdom and payment of their 
salaries represented 1 per cent of the kingdom's income. A 
high proportion of these chauffeurs are employed driving 
women who would drive themselves if they were allowed to 
get a driver's licence. 

88 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Female Locomotion, Saudi Style 

A particularly rebellious, bored and ingenious expatriate woman 
married to a male colleague of one of the authors tested the envelope 
of the rule book regarding the using of wheels in Saudi Arabia. 
Denied the use of a car, she bought a bicycle and proceeded to pedal 
it around her compound. When the Mutawa'een found out, they 
were not amused. They issued a directive — women on bikes were 
not allowed by the Qur'an. Unseated but undeterred, this stalwart 
for women's rights then bought a pair of roller skates and proceeded 
to skate around the compound. This time around, the Mutawa'een 
were even less amused. Any form of wheels at all were precluded 
by the Qur'an, they declared. There was talk of extreme punishment 
for breaking the laws of the land after getting a first warning. But all 
that happened was the woman and her skates were separated. 

Wives or daughters entitled to accompany or visit guest 
workers in Saudi Arabia may get frustrated to the point 
of exasperation by the niggling and seemingly pointless 
restrictions that the country imposes on its women. But even 
those inclined to rebel don't face much real danger. The same 
cannot be said for female guest workers further down the 
pecking order. Domestic staff from the Third World face a 
life of isolation from their own culture, and total dependency 
on the goodwill of their employers. For them, Saudi Arabia 
can truly be a hardship posting. 

If the employer decides to abuse, starve, sexually exploit 
and underpay his Third World employee, the employee 
has little option, other than suicide, than to put up with the 
maltreatment. Embassies of Third World countries like the 
Philippines, India and Pakistan are ineffective at redressing 
the grievances of citizens employed by unscrupulous Saudis. 
In any case, the embassies may not learn of the abuses 
to their nationals since female servants are not allowed 
outside their house of employment without their employer's 
permission. In addition, abused employees cannot flee the 
country since they can't get hold of their own passports and 
if they could, they would be unable to get an exit visa without 
their employer's approval. Should the matter come to court, 
no Saudi court conducted by male religious appointees is 
likely to find in favour of a non-Muslim female guest worker 
from a Third World country. 

Getting to Know the Saudis 89 

Outside their place of 
employment, foreign domestic 
workers can also get rough 
treatment from any passer-by 

Amnesty International and 
otherhuman rights organisations 
relate tragic stories of Filipina 
domestic servants abused by 
their Saudi employers. 

who happens to feel obliged 

to exercise social discipline. The authors once observed 
the Mutawa'een caning the legs of a pair of Filipino girls 
considered to be showing too much ankle. Similar scenes of 
public canings of females for no apparent reason were beamed 
in from Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban. 


Acceptable body contact behaviour in Saudi Arabia is 
almost the opposite of its counterpart in Western countries. 
Only men frequent the crowded sidewalk cafes and coffee 
bars. Males do a great deal of touching in public whereas 
touching between males and females in Saudi Arabia is 
almost never seen. You will often see men, young and old, 
walking down the street hand-in-hand or at coffee shops in 
deep conversations with other men. Anyone who works with 
Saudis will have experienced the capacity of Saudi males 
to show physical affection to even the remotest of chance 
acquaintances. Saudis tend to break off from whatever they 
are doing to engage in conversation with a passing friend. 
Until you get used to it, these sudden switches of focus can 
be disconcerting. 

Reuniting with a Long Lost Brother? 

On one occasion, one of the authors was deeply engrossed in a 
conference with his Saudi boss, Saleh, when another Saudi entered 
the office. When the Saudi visitor entered the office, Saleh leapt 
from his chair to embrace the man. They kissed. The visitor drew 
up a chair and they held hands while the coffee was brought. The 
subject of the conference was forgotten for 30 minutes while the two 
entered a deep conversation. The author sat silently watching all this, 
believing he was witnessing the return of a long lost brother. After 
the visitor departed, the author asked Saleh who the visitor might 
have been. Was that your brother? Was he some school friend who 
had gone missing for 20 years? Was he a favourite cousin? To the 
author's surprise, Saleh replied the man was a complete stranger. 
The two had never met before. 


90 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Such instant rapport and hospitality to strangers is thought 
to stem from the ways of the Bedouin a couple of generations 
before. For those who spent their time roaming the desert 
mounted on a camel and in the company of a flock of sheep, 
the sight of a stranger stumbling out of the desert was a 
welcome diversion! From the wanderer's point of view, 
equally welcome was sight of a tented encampment where 
water, food and shelter might be available. The tradition of 
the desert decreed that wandering strangers be offered the 
hospitality of the encampment in return for an account of 
the stranger's journey. In the offices of the modern world, 
the tradition lives on! 

The fact that men are extraordinarily affectionate to one 
another may suggest to guest workers that they have arrived 
at the global centre of homosexuality. This is not so. Taking 
its cues from its founder, Islam is a strongly heterosexual 
religion. Homosexual activity is a criminal offence that can 
attract the death sentence or, at very least, a long stretch 
in prison, with the customary public flogging served as an 
additional punishment. 

Sex, both homosexual and heterosexual, is a taboo subject 
in Saudi Arabia more than in most places. The opportunities 
of young Saudi males to express their heterosexual desires 
are almost as limited as young Saudi females to express 
theirs. Wherever you go in the country, you are struck by the 
shortage of women in public places. What goes on between 
consenting unmarried people behind closed doors is the 
subject of much conjecture among the expat community. 


The major item of apparel for Arab men is known as a thobe, 
an ankle-length coverall. Along with its accessory, the head 
scarf called the gutra, the thobe is the national dress of Saudi 
Arabia and surrounding Arab states. 

Dress code in this area of the world varies little from one 
occupation to another. The thobe and gutra is ubiquitous 
apparel, worn across all socio-economic groups. There is no 
telling from his dress whether a man is an office worker, a 
shopkeeper, a construction worker or a taxi driver. 

Getting to Know the Saudis 91 

Saudi men dressed in thobes, bischts and gutras. 

In summer, the thobe is a lightweight cotton garment, 
almost invariably coloured plain white. Wintertime thobes are 
a little more adventurous, made out of thicker material such 
as fine wool that may be patterned and are generally some 
pale colour such as ochre or grey. Men's headgear comprises 
a cap known as a tagia over which the gutra is secured by 
one or two cords known as an egal. In winter, men may also 
wear something similar to an academic gown known as a 
mishlah or a bischt. Saudi men in high positions may dress 
up a bit more, sometimes in winter wearing a bischt edged 
in gold silk. 

Saudis of whatever status like to wear gold— rings, 
watches, bracelets, necklaces and cigarette cases. The other 
accessory with which Saudis equip themselves— at least 
if they are office workers or important officials — is a set 
of prayer beads, colloquially known as 'worry beads'. The 
original purpose of the beads was to count the number of 
prayers during prayer calls. The beads come as a string like 
a small necklace, usually in a set of 33 or 99 beads. Outside 

92 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

their official function of counting prayers, worry beads are 
habitually busy, getting a good working over during most of 
their owners' waking hours. 


Saudi women in black abayas dress even more uniformly 
than their men. As the national dress for women, the 
Judaic tradition of abaya-wearing stretches back to 
Biblical times. 

According to Dr Zakir Naik, the President of the Islamic 
Research Foundation in Mumbai, India, the Qur'an 
stipulates the following as dress code for Muslims: 'The 
first criterion is the extent of the body which should be 
covered. This is different for men and women. The male 
should cover his body at least from the navel to the knees. 
Women are obliged to cover their entire bodies except the 
hands and feet.' 

Additional rules prescribed for women's attire are the 
cut, closeness of fit, construction and style. To meet the 
approved dress code, clothes should be sufficiently loose- 
fitting to conceal the figure, should be of opaque material, 
should not be glamorous and should not be marked by 

Viewing the world through the hijab (veil worn by Muslim women). 

Getting to Know the Saudis 93 

symbols of unbelievers. Ultra-conservative Muslims believe 
for a women to reveal her face to anybody but her relatives 
is un-Islamic. Most women you see moving along the street 
are dressed in black abayas and have their faces covered; 
their sandaled feet, their hands and their eyes the only body 
parts on display. A minority cover only their heads leaving 
their faces uncovered. 

While the style and cut of abayas is ubiquitous, the 
quality of the cloth may vary. As an indicator of social 
status, expensive abayas may have an upmarket brand 
label exposed for peer group approval. Abayas worn in 
public as black may be reversible, with blue on one side, 
black on the other. Within the home, abayas can be worn 
blue-side out. 

Outsiders speculate how much Saudi women like or dislike 
wearing the abaya. Statements from Saudi women themselves 
regarding their society's insistence on wearing abayas are 
mixed. Some claim abayas are 
uncomfortable and that inside 
their own homes they discard 
the abaya for Western clothes. 
Others feel that the abaya affords 
the wearer valued anonymity 
and protection. The abaya also 
offers a convenience that no 
other garment can match. Saudi 
women can throw an abaya over 
any level of underclothing from 
pyjamas to a Dior outfit. An additional advantage for those 
who feel self-conscious about their figures: the abaya is an 
excellent cover against unfashionable bulges. 

Why the abaya should be coloured black is some sort 
of mystery that the authors have not solved. From a heat 
absorption point of view, black is the absolute worst colour 
to wear in the baking climate of Saudi Arabia. Reports 
are that life can get mighty hot inside an abaya and 
uncomfortable too since to keep the thing on, the wearer 
must incline her head forward in a way that she appears to 
be looking at the ground in an attitude of submission. Were 

Female Liberationists 
Express Themselves 

Neo-liberated young expat 
women have been seen 
registering their protests 
against abaya wearing 'punk' 
abayas— torn up in the manner 
of ancient jeans worn by young 
women of the wider world's 
grunge rock society. 

94 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

these rules of apparel merely design flaws that happened 
by accident, or were they contrived to inconvenience 
the fairer sex? The Qur'an appears to be silent on this 
question. Dr Naik does not list the colour black as one 
of the Qur'an's dress code rules for abayas. But black 
they are. 

In contrast with the abaya, we note as a sideline 
comment, the thobe worn by the Saudi male is white — the 
most heat-reflective colour of all, and therefore most 
climate-friendly. Saudi colour code is the opposite of 
Western colour code, where brides wear white (the 
traditional colour of purity) whereas bridegrooms 
(for reasons that can only be speculated) traditionally 
wear black. From a female perspective, this does 
seem a more realistic colour coding system than the 
Arabian alternative. 


There is a story that when King Ibn Saud invited the oil 
company executives into Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, he 
insisted the Americans dressed as Arabs, which the American 
guests proceeded to do. But with the massive influx of guest 
workers into Saudi Arabia in recent years, sentiment in this 
area has changed. Saudis are touchy about sharing their 
culture with foreigners. Having foreigners getting around in 
their country dressed like Lawrence of Arabia has now fallen 
out of favour. 

Office attire in Saudi Arabia is that appropriate to your 
country of origin. Businesspeople will be expected to wear 
suits — lightweight for most of the year and medium-weight 
for the few weeks of winter. For those further down the social 
order, shirt and slacks will suffice. 

One exception to the advice of not adopting the local 
dress code is footwear. Almost all Arabs wear sandals, or at 
least opened-backed shoes that can be slipped on and off 
as necessary e.g. when entering places such as mosques 
where shoes are unacceptable. They rarely wear socks. This 
is sensible footwear for the locality. In most places, wearing 
sandals by Western expats is considered acceptable. But for 

Getting to Know the Saudis 95 

most situations, sandals are about the limit of acceptable 
Arabisation in the apparel area. 

Like many hot countries, Saudi Arabia has a parallel 
climate— the air-conditioning of offices, cars, restaurants 
and hotels. In a country of blistering heat, local fashion 
dictates that air-conditioning be turned down to a level that 
can chill the marrow in your bones. Saudi culture regarding 
air-conditioning seems to be based on some sort of macho 
idea that those with the lowest temperature settings are 
the highest in the social pecking order. Moving between 
freezing air inside buildings to the desert heat outside can be 
discomforting and even health threatening. Those wearing 
glasses and exiting a building may be temporarily blinded 
by the mist of condensation when their cold lenses make 
contact with the hot moist outside air. 

96 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

For those whose occupation requires them to 
move from office to office, carrying a coat is strongly 
recommended, if not for its formality then for its warmth. 
After a few near-death experiences from pneumonia 
occasioned by air conditioning, both the authors would 
carry coats with them whenever they were out visiting 
someone else's office, or were likely to hitch a ride 
in someone else's vehicle. 


Dress code for alien women varies somewhat between regions 
of Saudi Arabia. Standards of modesty are more rigorous in 
Riyadh than in cities on either coastline. In most places, foreign 
women aren't expected to cover completely. Cool, loose-fitting 
clothes in light cotton fabrics are recommended. Exposing bare 
legs and arms is against the rules. Shorts and short-sleeved 
tops are unacceptable. Slacks are also unacceptable because 
they are too revealing of the female form. 

Getting to Know the Saudis 97 

Some women find wearing a lightweight hooded coverall 
like an academic gown that can be slipped over normal 
clothes is the easiest way to comply with the dress code 
of the street. Some also carry a large black scarf that can 
be donned should the Mutawa'een suddenly appear on 
the scene. 

Women have greater opportunities than men to pass 
themselves off as Arabs if they feel so inclined. A fully- 
covering Saudi ensemble of abaya, hijab (or burka) displays 
only the hands, the feet and the eyes. Foreign woman 
wishing to experience local cultural norms can dress 
Saudi style, find a friend and wander the streets. Since 
women do not normally interact with strangers, fluency 
in Arabic is not required to maintain the disguise. During 
the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, by dressing up as 
women, male reporters claimed they could walk around 
in areas restricted to Westerners. No one could tell that 
these creatures encased from head to toe in loose-fitting 
fabric, were in reality, cross-gender, cross-culture, cross- 
dressing reporters disguised to live long enough to file 
their stories. 

Wings Clipped 

The Saudi branch of the US military has, over recent years, 
maintained a delicate relationship with its Saudi hosts. After the 
first Gulf War, the US maintained a presence on Saudi soil with 
the objective of protecting the northern borders with Iraq and 
maintaining security inside Saudi Arabia. The presence of the US 
military personnel of infidels was opposed by clerics and religious 
fundamentalists. The US tried its best to fit in. Endeavouring to 
comply with local cultural norms, the military required the few 
female personnel based in Saudi Arabia to wear black, head-to-foot 
abayas. In 1995, Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally, the highest- 
ranking female fighter pilot in the US Air Force, initiated an effort 
in court to end what she considered was discriminatory treatment. 
Lt Col McSally was licensed to fly supersonic fighters over Saudi 
Arabia and frequently did so. She objected not only to the dress 
code, but also to the prohibition preventing her from driving herself 
around the base. In her trips between the airstrip and her quarters, 
this supersonic pilot was relegated to the rear of a vehicle driven 
by a male officer who was subordinate to her rank, but held a valid 
driver's licence. 


98 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Despite sharing some common roots, prophets and 
angels, Islam and Christianity have historically been in 
competition for hearts and minds. Tensions between the 
two religions can present problems to devout Christians 
working in the kingdom. Some Muslims claim Islam is 
tolerant of other religions, but this tolerance is unlikely 
to be apparent to visitors to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi 
version of Islam is aggressive. As in the Catholic world 
of the late Middle Ages religion, law and the state merge 
imperceptibly to suppress political dissidents under the 
cloak of religious respectability. 

Saudi Arabia has no Christian churches or any other 
non-Muslim houses of worship. Prayer meetings of non- 
Muslim groups are held in private venues and may be 
banned at the whim of the Mutawa'een, which exercises 
its power to haul those suspected of a religious crime 
into criminal courts. Though you might have entered 
'Christian' on your immigration card, believers are advised 
to practise Christianity discreetly. Even wearing a crucifix 
can be illegal. 

Of the individuals who might break the law, Saudis tend to 
come down hardest on those with least influence. Favoured 
victims of the Mutawa'een are people from the poorer Asian 
countries whose embassies are hard-pressed to maintain 
an effective presence in the kingdom. For nationalities that 
profess alternative religious beliefs, this usually boils down 
to Filipinos and Indians. 

The Islamic calendar also complicates the life of devout 
Christians. Thursday and Friday are the weekend in 
Saudi Arabia. Those who wish to attend Sunday service 
have difficulty doing so on the second day of the Saudi 
working week. Religiously-inspired Saudi employers may 
make a great show of checking whether Christians, and 
particularly Filipino expatriates, are in attendance at their 
Sunday workplaces. 

For every service that is conducted, someone has to 
conduct it. Christian preachers in Saudi Arabia are taking 
a real risk. The Mutawa'een come down much harder on 

Getting to Know the Saudis 99 

preachers of alternative religions than on the congregation. 
Amnesty International records many sad experiences of 
guest workers accused by the Mutawa'een of spreading a 
false faith. 

The Risks of Preaching or Adopting the False Faith 

Saudi Arabia's religious courts may impose the death penalty on 
those who preach alternative religions in the kingdom, as well 
as on any Muslim who renounces Islam. Since churches and 
temples are banned, Saudi Arabia's religious police are alert to the 
possibility of non-Muslim services in private homes, and encourage 
those who suspect such services to report their suspicions to 
the authorities. 

Over the years Saudi Arabia's religious police have imprisoned 
many a foreign worker for "preaching Christianity". Typical is the case 
of Brian Savio O'Connor, a Christian and an Indian citizen who was 
apprehended, taken to a mosque and later to prison, where he was 
tortured over a period of weeks and threatened with death if he did 
not renounce his faith and convert to Islam. 

Those who involve themselves with the court cases of infidels 
are also at risk. Lawyer Abdul-Rahman Alahim, acting for another 
Indian client charged with religious offences, was jailed the day 
after he appeared on the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera to urge his 
government to free political prisoners and implement political reform. 
His intervention was in relation to an incident where Saudi Arabia's 
religious police arrested eight Christians, including one who was 
beaten in front of his five-year-old son, before being taken to prison 
to be beaten after which charges were laid. 

After many complaints of this nature, the U.S. State Department, 
usually silent on such matters, named Saudi Arabia a "country of 
particular concern, subjecting it to possible sanctions for egregious 
and ongoing violations of religious freedom where worshippers risk 
arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes torture 
for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention." 

In the scale of religious offences, worse than preaching 
in Saudi Arabia, is attempting to convert believers of other 
religions to Christianity. Saudi Arabia is not a fertile region 
for proselytisers. Young men from Salt Lake City and dressed 
in ties and shirts are not seen prowling the streets of Riyadh 
seeking converts. For good reason. Christians thought to be 
promoting an anti-Muslim message face a possible death 
sentence on the grounds of heresy. 

100 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Saudis dance in celebration at a traditional wedding in Jeddah. 


Weddings and funerals are strictly segregated affairs in 
accordance with the mores of Saudi culture. Weddings in 
particular are interesting in this regard, since in theory they 
celebrate a bonding between the sexes. But in Saudi Arabia, 
only one sex is present at wedding ceremonies which are 
held separately for men and women. Since no men are 
present at the bridal ceremony, women are allowed to 
discard their veils and let their hair down, at least with other 
women. (At some point during the wedding celebrations, 
or maybe after they have been concluded, it is believed the 
bride and groom do get together.) 

Saudis pray at the simple unmarked grave of the late King Fahd. 

Getting to Know the Saudis 101 

Arrangements for funerals are even simpler. Though the 
Qur'an is not absolutely clear on the point, the clerics have 
ruled that women are not allowed to attend funerals (other 
than their own), probably on the grounds that doing so would 
involve women and men at social occasions mixing to an 
unacceptable degree. Funerals for deceased men and women 
are men-only occasions. 


Saudi Arabia is not a country in which to step out of line. 
You'll get a feel for what you can and can't do after you have 
been there for a while. Those who are in daily contact with 
Saudis are at the most risk from the Saudi legal system. For 
dealings with Saudis which turn out badly, guest workers are 
handy scapegoats. 

Finding a Scapegoat 

After being charged with bribery in his dealings with a Saudi 
contractor, a colleague of one of the authors was put under house 
arrest whereby he was compelled to stay inside a house in Saudi 
Arabia for many years after his contract was meant to have 
expired. Even the world's largest construction company, of whom 
he was an employee, couldn't save him. Other guest workers 
implicated in building collapses on other projects elsewhere in the 
kingdom have faced manslaughter charges. The Saudi authorities 
alleged poor design, though the more likely cause was poor 
construction by Saudi contractors. The accused were detained in 
the country at the leisure of the authorities while none too accurate 
enquiries by authorities qualified in Shariah Law as distinct from 
engineering, determined why structures failed. 

The various macabre forms of punishment, some for 
seemingly trivial crimes, are well publicised. Saudi Arabia 
has an unsavory reputation with humanitarian groups like 
Amnesty International. Political prisoners are detained 
for years without trial. Torture is commonplace. Public 
whippings are often part of the sentence. Amputation of the 
right hand is the prescribed punishment for theft. Highway 
robbery is punished by amputating the right hand and 
the left foot. 

102 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Brutal punishment is regularly perpetrated on the local 
population and the guest workforce alike. Often, the victims 
of the judicial system are convicted on the skimpiest of 
evidence. Even if you are not a suspect, you need to be 
careful in your dealings with the authorities, or better yet, 
avoid them entirely. The Saudi Judiciary is unpredictable. 
Punishment can be random and casually applied. 

A Case of Wrongful Arrest 

In a well-reported case, a Westerner thought he had lost his watch 
in a hotel room. In the intervening period between last noticing 
the watch and losing it, his room had been made up. Foolishly, as 
it turned out, the guest reported the loss of his watch to the hotel 
management who, after a search, reported it to the police. Suspicion 
fell on the maid who had tidied the room. The maid was a Filipina. 
Here was a small target that the Saudis could punish without undue 
fuss to tidy up the case. The maid was picked up, interrogated, found 
guilty and punished. Her right hand was amputated. Only later, after 
the hotel guest found his watch in his luggage, did the complainant 
learn of the maid's fate. 


Guest workers in Saudi Arabia are subject to an additional 
level of risk from the 'war on terror' waged by the US and its 
allies after 9-11 against real and perceived Islamic terrorists. 
The mastermind behind the 9-11 attack is widely thought to 
be Osama bin Laden, who had once been a Saudi citizen. 
Bin Laden, whose views were well known to the Saudi Royal 
family, has been persona non grata in Saudi Arabia for a 
number of years and had his citizenship revoked in 1 994. On 
the other hand, the bin Laden family has been enormously 
enriched by its close association with the Saudi Royal Family 
as well as the Bush family in the US. The bin Ladens also 
have substantial construction interests on the east coast of 
the US and may have even received contracts to repair some 
of the 9-11 damage. 

The US insists that the Saudis spare no effort 
apprehending terrorists for their crimes. Anxious to keep 
the alliance intact, the Saudis have co-operated vigorously 
and, at times, randomly. Risks to guest workers are not 

Getting to Know the Saudis 103 

only from the terrorists themselves, but from Saudi 
authorities seeking innocent foreign scapegoats to blame 
for terror attacks. 

In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time 

To avoid inciting their own militants to action and to avoid increasing 
the influence the hawkish wing of the US administration criticising 
Saudi Arabia for its tolerance of terrorists, Saudi authorities would 
far rather pin the blame for bombings on anyone other than 
their own citizens. In his book Saudi Babylon: Torture, Corruption 
and Cover-up inside the House of Saud, British anaesthetist Sandy 
Mitchell explains how he was framed by the Saudi authorities for 
two bombings that occurred in Saudi Arabia in 2000. When he 
was first picked up, Mitchell thought his was a case of mistaken 
identity. He expected to be released as soon as the small problem of 
establishing his identity was cleared up. He was quickly disillusioned. 
He was refused rights to a lawyer and spent two and a half years 
inside a Saudi jail where he was tortured into signing a confession 
and forced to admit his guilt for the bombings on Saudi TV. He 
was sentenced to death, but released before the sentence was 
carried out. 

Outside the court system, at a personal level, disputes 
between fundamentalists and the US in particular have 
increased the risks of working in Saudi Arabia. The 
kingdom has suffered a number of bombings directed at 
foreigners. In 1995, a bomb exploded at a US-operated 
Saudi National Guard training centre in Riyadh, killing five 
Americans. Four Saudi men were charged with the 
bombing and confessions were extracted. The accused 
were beheaded in Riyadh's main square. An oil-tanker 
explosion in June 1 996 was in retaliation for this execution 
and in the same year, a truck bomb blew the facade off 
the Khobar Towers, a multi-storey US residential tower 
block, killing 1 9 US servicemen. Thirteen Saudis and one 
Lebanese were indicted for the attack. In May 2003, car 
bombs exploded in a Riyadh residential compound killing a 
targeted group of expatriate workers plus the car bombers 
themselves. In 2006 an Al Qaeda cell tried to sabotage an 
oil processing facility in Abqaiq on the east coast of Saudi 
Arabia, with loss of life on both sides. 

104 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Advice from the US Embassy (2001) 

The US embassy in Saudi Arabia has urged its citizens in the country 
to adopt extreme care. Advised the embassy: 

"We strongly encourage all American citizens visiting or 
resident in Saudi Arabia to maintain a high level of vigilance and 
take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness and 
reduce their vulnerability. Americans should maintain a low 
profile, vary routes and times for all required travel, and treat 
mail and packages from unfamiliar sources with suspicion. In 
addition, American citizens are urged to avoid contact with any 
suspicious, unfamiliar objects, and to report the presence of 
such objects to local authorities. Vehicles should not be left 
unattended, if at all possible, and should be kept locked 
at all times. American citizens are urged to park their motor 
vehicles in protected areas with restricted access and to 
inspect the vehicles before using them, looking underneath, 
inside the engine compartment, and inside the trunk. The use 
of a flashlight for vehicle inspections at night is recommended. 
Suspicious activities, individuals, or vehicles should be reported to 
the US Embassy or nearest Consulate General. Licence numbers 
of vehicles and descriptions of individuals are extremely helpful. 
Saudi officials continue to co-operate closely with the Embassy to 
ensure the safety of all Americans.' 


The method of legal executions in Saudi Arabia is beheading 
with a sword. Saudi Arabia employs as its executioner a full- 
time swordsman who travels to the various execution sites 

Getting to Know the Saudis 105 

around the country. From reports published in the media and 
other sources within the country, estimates of the number 
of executions range from 100 to 200 per year. Most human 
rights organisations believe the actual figure is much higher. 
For the year 2000, Amnesty International estimated that 
Saudi Arabia had the second highest rate of legal executions 
per capita of population after Singapore, followed next in 
order by China, Egypt and the United States (statistics for 
African nations were not included). Drug dealing, heresy, 
adultery and assault are some of the crimes that can attract 
the death sentence in Saudi Arabia. 

Erratic Sentencing 

According to Amnesty International, two Filipinos— Arnel Beltran 
and Roel Janda— suffered the ultimate penalty for what in other 
societies might pass as a minor crime. In addition, claimed Amnesty 
International, the charges against the two accused were unproved. 
'The two were charged with assaulting a shopkeeper and attempted 
theft — a charge that was thought to be pretext for their real crime 
of belonging to a Christian sect. According to the witness, during 
their detention, they were taken to court twice but each time the 
alleged victim of assault failed to appear in court. They apparently 
were under the impression that their trial was pending until the 
other party appeared in court. They had no idea that they had been 
sentenced to death. The two were beheaded for whatever their crime 
might have been.' 

As a guest worker, you may well abhor the idea of 
executions. But capital punishment is practised in Saudi 
Arabia on a regular basis. Saudis are not the least bit 
ashamed of these practices. Quite the reverse. Executions are 
ceremonial events held in public and conducted on Fridays, 
the holy day in the Islamic week. The populace — local and 
alien— is encouraged, or at the very least not discouraged, 
from attending. If you happen to stray too close to 'Chop 
Square' in your local town (as the execution sites are 
nicknamed), you may find yourself pushed to the front of 
the crowd. Saudi Arabia believes in the deterrent power of 
executions. It likes its guest workers to witness punishment 
for crimes committed and thereby encourages them to keep 
their minds focused on their work and not on side issues. 

106 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

At a local execution, after being pushed to the front of the 
crowd in this way, a British reporter once asked a bystander 
the reason why people wanted him to stand in the front of 
the crowd. "To add to the sinner's punishment," a Saudi 
witness to the execution explained, "So the last thing the 
sinner sees as he leaves this world is your face: the face of 
the infidel." 


The case of the two British nurses, Lucille McLaughlin 
and Deborah Parry was well publicised. These two were 
accused of murdering a fellow worker, an Australian nurse, 
and faced punishment of 500 lashes and eight years jail 
for McLaughlin and execution by beheading for Parry. But 
there was an out. The principle of Shariah Law known as 
diya allows the victim or the victim's family to accept blood 
money in exchange for clemency. The victim's brother, 
Frank Gilford, was the accepted spokesperson for the 
family of the victim. The case made worldwide news and 
the British government got deeply involved in the affair. 
After a long period of negotiation, Gilford finally agree to 
accept blood money for his sister's death. Subsequently 
McLaughlin and Parry were pardoned by the king and 
were repatriated to Britain. In all probability, if a couple 
of Filipino nurses had been found guilty of the same 
crime, the punishments prescribed by the courts would 
have been exacted. Like most places in the world, under 
the diya system, justice flows to those who can best 
afford it! 


Since the 1940s, when the commercial oil industry first got 
underway, oil for protection has been the essence of the 
contract between the US and Saudi Arabia. This arrangement 
has endured. As the leader of OPEC, Saudi Arabia keeps 
the Western world supplied with oil and influences fellow 
members of OPEC to do likewise. In return, the US provides 
the promise of military backing to keep the Al Saud regime 
in power. 

Getting to Know the Saudis 107 

This is a marriage of mutual convenience in which, not too 
far beneath the surface, the partners are deeply incompatible. 
Though the incompatibilities are papered over, occasionally 
they come to the surface. Many Americans believe that Saudi 
Arabia is a hot-bed of terrorism. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers 
involved in the 9- 1 1 attack were Saudi nationals, mostly from 
the strongly anti-US Asir region near Yemen. 

A Pentagon paper in 2002 was one of many statements 
that questioned Saudi Arabia's devotion to America's cause of 
waging a war on terror. It stated that '...the Saudis are active 
at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, 
from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader'. 
The Pentagon paper went on to recommend that the US issue 
an ultimatum to Saudi Arabia to stop sponsoring terrorism 
or face the seizure of its oilfields and financial assets. Other 
hawkish comments from the Pentagon and in conservative 
US newspapers described Saudi citizens as 'terrorists' 
and recommend Saudi Arabia be bombed 'back to the 
stone age'. 

108 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

For their part, the clerics and many Saudi citizens, maybe 
the majority, sympathise with the Al-Qaeda cause of Osama 
bin Laden. Islamic fundamentalists regard both parties as 
the partners to an unholy alliance. Members of the Saudi 
leadership are considered godless despots who prefer to 
party in the West rather than make a pilgrimage to Mecca. 
The US is considered the axis of evil. In addition, particular 
tribal groups within Saudi Arabia grind various axes against 
the Saudi monarchy more deeply rooted than the US-Saudi 
detente. Hijazis from areas around the holy cities of Mecca 
and Medina, pursue a grudge against the Wahhabi religious 
leadership that goes back 250 years. 

The dissident movement inside Saudi Arabia is an 
embarrassment to the Saudi government and an ongoing 
sore point for the US administration. If the regime is too soft 
on terrorists, the conservative lobby in the US issues hawkish 
threats. If it comes down too hard on terrorists, pressure rises 
from its own citizens. The Saudi administration attempts to 
plot a middle path. 

Finding the Middle Path 

In 1992, over 100 Wahhabi clerics sent a 'Memorandum of Advice' 
to King Fahd, criticising the monarchy for corruption and allowing 
US troops to remain in the country after the first Gulf War King Fahd 
responded by dismissing seven of the 1 7 members of the country's 
highest clerical body, the Supreme Authority of Senior Clerics, for not 
denouncing the memorandum. Two dissident clerics were jailed for 
precipitating public protests. The monarchy was later forced to cede 
more power to the clerics when these prisoners were released. After 
this, the uneasy alliance between clerics and royalty continued. 

Outside government, citizens in the US took things into 
their own hands. In the US civil courts, in mid-2002, a trillion- 
dollar class action was launched on behalf of the victims of 
9-11. The action originally named, among the defendants, 
three Al Saud princes, including the former intelligence chief 
Prince Turki Al Faisal and the defence minister Prince Sultan 
bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. The lawsuit was expanded later that 
year to involve other parties including three more princes and 
the Saudi-American Bank (SAMBA), the second largest bank 

Getting to Know the Saudis 109 

in the country and partly owned by Citibank. No sooner was 
the lawsuit underway when stories circulated that the wife 
of the long-serving Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince 
Bandar bin Sultan, had been accused of making donations 
to Al Qaeda. She has since claimed her innocence. 

For its part, Saudi Arabia countered US claims that it was 
soft on terrorism by suggesting that the US could do more 
to remove the triggers for terrorists, specifically US support 
for Israel's suppression of the Palestinians. 

In May 2003, after the car-bomb attacks on expatriate 
compounds in Saudi Arabia, the monarchy once again tried 
to shift the balance of power in its favour while placating 
the demands of the United States to crack down on terrorist 
sympathisers. According to reports on BBC, 'more than 1 ,700 
clerics' had been relieved of their duties or forced to undergo 
're-education'. In addition, three clerics were arrested over 
alleged links to terrorists. Political commentators interpreted 
this move as a purge of militants within the kingdom who 
might have posed a threat to the existing political order. 

Memo from One Head of State to Another 

In 2009, just after President Obama came to power in the US, Saudi's 
ambassador in the US, Prince Turki al Faisal, wrote in The Financial 
Times that outgoing president, George Bush, had left a "sickening 
legacy" in the Middle East. In a subsequent phone call to King 
Abdullah, Obama stressed the importance of strong ties between the 
US and Saudi Arabia. However as Prince Turki observed, relations 
between the two countries would likely remain strained unless the US 
"drastically revised its policies vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine."/ 

A new generation of almost unemployable Saudi youth 
poised to enter the labour market poses an additional 
potential terrorist threat for which there is no obvious solution 
in the short term. To some, this pool of bored and unhappy 
young people on the loose appears to be a pool of ready-made 
recruits for the next generation of terrorists. 

Under such tensions, from time to time, commentators 
speculate whether a revolution could occur in Saudi Arabia 
similar to the Iranian revolution of 1979 to unseat the Saudi 

110 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

monarchy and rid the country not only of Western influence, 
but also its Western workforce. 
It seems unlikely. 

So far, Saudi Arabia has held together politically, despite 
the tensions and occasional outbreaks of violence. The Royal 
Family in Saudi Arabia seems far more secure than was the 
Shah in Iran. The sheer size of the Royal Family — thousands 
of major and minor Royals spread all over the country and 
among all levels of society— is, at the same time, a strength 
and a weakness. At least five different power groups have 
been identified as operating within the family. Though its 
size, numbering thousands, makes the family difficult to act 
cohesively, these thousands of family members do share a 
common interest in staying in power. The interdependency 
of the Royal Family and the Ulema is another important 
factor. In Iran, the religious movement was the natural enemy 
of the political leadership. In Saudi Arabia, the Ulema and 
the Royal Family share an alliance going back over at least 
three centuries. 

Since the loyalty of armies can never be guaranteed, the 
Saudi Royal Family has tried to protect its power base by 
establishing an administrative structure to minimise the 
chances of a coup d'etat. Protecting the Royal family are 
the National Guard composed of Bedouins thought to be the 
staunchest supporters of Saudi royalty. In addition, reporting 
to the Interior Ministry are the Public Security Police (which 
includes the mubahith or secret police and the regular police) 
and the Special Security force (the equivalent of the US 
SWAT team). 

In any case, most analysts believe if a revolution were to 
break out in Saudi Arabia, the US would be unlikely to stay 
out of the contest and allow Saudi oil to fall into uncertain 
hands. The alliance between the US and the House of Saud 
not only protects the Saudi regime against external threats, 
but also against its own dissidents. 


'I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides 
and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of 
all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as 
possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.' 
-Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) 

112 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


For some, flying to the Middle East for the first time, the 
standard two-year contract duration may seem like a long 
time to spend in what is generally portrayed as a tough 
assignment in a tough location. For others, the prospect 
of life in Saudi Arabia, with no income tax, few financial 
responsibilities, a house provided and lots of paid holidays, 
may lessen the perception of Saudi Arabia as a hardship 
posting. For most guest workers, the assignment works out. 
Many find, after their arrival, that the advertised hardships 
of Saudi Arabia have been greatly exaggerated— that Saudi 
Arabia is, in fact, an easy number. In actuality for some, 
particularly those with high status jobs, working in Saudi 
Arabia is a career highlight, with luxurious living and working 
conditions. But for the few whose assignment, for some 
reason, goes off the rails, Saudi Arabia can make life tough 
for its guest workers. 

En route to Saudi Arabia, you will probably have formed 
some mental image of what lies ahead. Maybe friends, who 
have worked in Saudi Arabia, will have recounted many a 
lurid tale, suitably embellished to increase your anxieties. 
Your mind may be gripped with ill-defined fears, particularly if 
you are a woman. In women's circles, this place has definitely 
acquired a reputation as a male-dominated society where 
women are afforded little respect and few privileges. To the 
guest worker visiting the kingdom for the first time, Saudi 

Settling In 113 

Arabia may be just a little bit scary. But the chances are, your 
fears will prove unfounded. 


The only tourist visas issued into Saudi Arabia are for approved 
tour groups following organised itineraries and for Muslim 
pilgrims intending to discharge their hajj obligations. Other than 
that, unless they are diplomats, travellers to Saudi Arabia are 
workers or dependants of workers who must be sponsored by a 
company or a Saudi citizen living inside the country. Providing 
that passports are valid for at least six months, visitors will then 
be issued visas after presentation of the correct paperwork 
prepared by their employers. Family members are entitled 
to visit Saudi Arabia under similar arrangements. Their visa 
applications will also be processed by the sponsoring company. 
Visas are obtained through Saudi embassies or approved travel 
agents in the passport holder's country of origin. 

Getting a Visa 

Precise information to be submitted to support a visa 
application may be obtained from the Saudi embassy website at 
Nine types of visa relating to employment or visiting rights are 
listed on the website. After an extensive paper trail detailed on this 
website, issuing time for visas is of the order of a week. For frequent 
business visitors from source countries that host an Arab or Saudi 
Arabian Chamber of Commerce, you can ask to be admitted to a 
VIP list so that your visa application will be fast tracked. 

On departing the country, say for R&R or a business 
trip, visitors must obtain an exit permit arranged by their 
employer prior to leaving and an exit/re-entry permit if 
they are returning to the kingdom after their sojourn away. 
Employees are not normally obliged to attend immigration 
offices either within or outside Saudi Arabia for this process. 
As each entry and re-entry visa requires an entire page, 
people making trips in and out of the kingdom will consume 
their passport pages at an impressive rate. Those who expect 

114 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

to travel frequently in and out of the kingdom should consider 
acquiring passports with more than the standard number of 
pages (most countries offer this option). 

Visits to Saudi Arabia by women are subject to additional 
rules. To comply with local requirements that women be 
accompanied wherever they go in Saudi Arabia, sponsors 
must meet females of dependants on entry into the country 
otherwise they may be held at airports for long periods, possibly 
indefinitely. On the return journey, married women and children 
need their husband's permission to leave the country. 

The Paper Mill 

Saudi Arabia has a large bureaucracy that has a commensurate 
appetite for paperwork. Once inside Saudi Arabia, you cannot be 
sure what documents will be needed, only that you're likely to 
need plenty of them! Experienced Saudi hands assemble document 
packs, including many passport size photographs of each member 
of the family, photocopies of ID, copies of most other important 
documents in your CV— birth certificate, marriage certificate, 
'no objection' letters and employment contracts— health cards, 
certificates of academic qualifications preferably all attested to 
by your country's own embassy in Saudi Arabia. 

Under Saudi law, the employer is obliged to hold its 
employees' passports while employees are in the kingdom. 
This rule can have a real downside if you are unfortunate 
enough to work for an unscrupulous employer. Without a 
passport, in the event of a dispute between employer and 
employee, there is no way for a disgruntled employee to 
get out of the country. Situations in which the employee 
is completely at the mercy of the employer have led to 
occasional sad stories of employee abuse. 

No one who has an Israeli visa stamp in their passport 
can get a visa for Saudi Arabia. Anyone who wants to visit 
both Israel and Saudi Arabia needs to get two passports, 
or make an arrangement with the Israelis for a removable 
visa. An extreme case of anti-Jewish sentiment in the 
authors' experience was the censoring, by an over zealous 
censor, of the word 'juice' from cans of fruit juice in the 
local commissary. Presumably this word was too close, 

Settling In 115 

phonetically, to the collective noun for the Jewish race. On 
each can, this word was blacked out by the Saudi censor's 
ubiquitous accessory— the black marker pen. 

In a parallel story, a past Australian ambassador to Saudi 
Arabia related the story of an Australian businessman 
who did a little jail time on his first visit to the country 
after a misunderstanding with an immigration official. 
The Australian businessman, it seems, had a slight speech 
impediment. When the immigration official asked what was 
the businessman's country of origin, he evidently thought 
he heard the reply 'Israel' instead of Australia'. Handcuffs 
were duly installed and the offender was whisked off to jail 
without so much as an opportunity provided for the offender 
to present his passport. 


Expats travelling to Saudi Arabia to work will also need their 
employer's help in getting an "Iqama" — or ID card, which is 
a tiny green booklet carried on the person verifying that the 
holder has legal right to be in Saudi Arabia. Since by law the 
passport must be held by the guest worker's employer, the 
Iqama is the principal ID document a guest worker must keep 
on their person while in Saudi Arabia. Without an Iqama, you 
will be unable to open a bank account, lease or buy a car, lease 
rental accommodation or transact other normal day-to-day 
activities. You may also be harassed in the event of police 
checks. In theory, your employer should be taking the initiative 
in organising the Iqama. However since the penalties for failure 
to produce an Iqama on request lie with the employee, it 
pays guest workers to ensure that the Iqama is a) issued, and 
b) re-issued before 45 days from date of expiry. 


The climate of Saudi Arabia, being hot and dry, is intrinsically 
bug-resistant. No injections are stipulated by the government 
as a condition for entry. Some visitors obtain a meningitis 
vaccination. Hepatitis A shots are recommended by many 
doctors. Those visiting the coastal plains of south-west 
Saudi Arabia— well away from most normal tour of duty 

116 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

areas— might be advised to take anti-malaria precautions. 
Those travelling near Mecca in the pilgrim season may 
consider taking precautions against Meningicoccal disease or 
meningitis that may be brought into the country by pilgrims 
from tropical Muslim countries. 


Saudi Arabia spends about 5 per cent of its gross domestic 
product (GDP) on health care— about one-third the rate of 
the United States and half that of the OECD (Organisation 
for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. 
Medical care is provided to Saudi citizens free of charge. 
Western health care workers report that Saudis tend to be on 
the opposite end of the health care scale to hypochondriacs. 
Saudis don't visit doctors unless they feel seriously unwell, 
thus reducing the strain on the health care system. Given 
the strength of their religious beliefs, Saudis probably aren't 
quite as obsessed as the typical Westerner with an ambition 
to prolong life as long as possible. The average lifespan of 
men is a modest 74 years and of women, 78 years. 

Health care in Saudi Arabia is a curious mixture of 
rudimentary primary medical care and a few lavishly 
equipped Western-style hospitals. The healthcare system 
is largely staffed by expatriates, though by 2001, Saudi 
employment in the health system had risen to 1 8 per cent. 

Guest workers may or may not have to pay for health 
costs depending on their employment conditions. Many large 
projects employ their own doctors, with health care included 
in employment packages. Despite the high standard of their 
hospitals, primary medical care is still fairly basic. If health 
care is not provided in the employment package, selection of 
one's health care provider is important. From an expatriate 
point of view, some excellent hospitals are available— along 
with some that are not so good. 


As a guest worker in the country, how you live will depend on 
who you are, what you have come to do and the organisation 
you are working for. If you are a Western businessperson 

Settling In 117 

heading a major corporation, you will enjoy the same 
luxury appointments in Saudi Arabia that you have come to 
expect wherever you travel. If you are working for a branch 
of a large company, you will probably be given comfortable 
accommodation, not quite up to luxury class. If you have 
come to work for a Saudi company, the likely standard of your 
accommodation is harder to predict. Large Saudi companies 
house their employees in all standards of accommodation, 
from the opulent to the very ordinary. At the other end of 
the employment scale, if you are an Indian houseboy in 
a luxury house, you would normally have a small room, 
though accommodation in stairwells, cupboards and shipping 
containers in the back garden have also been reported. Four 
or five labourers from Pakistan and Yemen might typically 
share a room someplace and sleep on the floor. 

As a Western expat worker, the most common style of 
accommodation in Saudi Arabia is the 'compound', which 
is essentially an expatriate enclave kept fairly separate from 
the Saudi Arabian mainstream community. The model for 
this society evolved in the first days of Saudi Arabia's now 
well-established imported labour programme. Aramco was 
established in 1948 to develop Saudi Arabia's first major oil 
strike at a favourable geological formation called the Dhahran 
Dome near the eastern seaboard. The area was arid and 
featureless. One small trading post, the now bustling town of Al 

Children hitch a ride on a donkey cart in an Al Khobar street. 

118 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Khobar, nestled nearby on the shores of the Persian Gulf. The 
nearest inland settlement was an oasis at Hofuf, about 1 50 km 
(90 miles) to the south. The site of the future oil wells and 
extraction facilities was a wide expanse of empty land. Ready- 
made accommodation for Western visitors was non-existent. 

To develop this great new oilfield, specialist expatriate 
workers to the Middle East, mainly US citizens, were imported 
to drill the wells, lay pipelines and build facilities needed to 
pump the oil into tankers pulling into Persian Gulf ports. To 
meet the need of this imported workforce for Western-style 
accommodation, the oil company created a typical American 
suburb amongst the wastes of the Dhahran desert, importing 
everything they required from kit homes to the grass for 
their sidewalks. They set up shopping facilities, banking, 
schools, hospitals, sports facilities and a radio station. The 
suburb, somewhat unimaginatively christened 'The Aramco 
Compound', was built and peopled by Americans who acted 
American, spoke American and might have been living in 
downtown Burbank. 

As the nation's oil revenues rolled in and were expended 
on development projects, replicas of this kit-form city 
were built elsewhere. At various large projects around 
the country, a number of Western-style towns have been 
constructed, initially inhabited by construction personnel, 
and later by Saudis. If you have come to Saudi Arabia to work 
on a construction site or to work in an existing industrial city, 
you have an excellent chance of living in a 'compound' that 
resembles the suburb of a dusty desert town, perhaps with neat 
streets, gardens and lawns irrigated by desalinated seawater. 
With increased security concerns in recent times, some 
compounds are now fortified settlements and are surrounded 
by walls and a cleared security area with high razor-wire fences 
patrolled by the Saudi Military. Residents of compounds tend 
to conduct most of their activities inside the compound's 
boundaries. Likewise most Saudis tend to stay outside. Within 
the compound, you can probably live a similar life in Saudi 
Arabia to the one you left in your country of origin. 

The standard of accommodation offered in compounds 
could be a single room 'dog-box', a trailer home imported 

Settling In 119 

fully assembled or a luxury permanent home in an established 
suburb. Suburbs and compounds of large cities are generally 
well-equipped with sporting facilities, community centres, 
movie theatres and shops. Some visitors may feel right at 
home in these facilities. Others may find that living in the 
company-provided accommodation of Saudi Arabia superior 
to anything they have experienced back home in their 
countries of origin! A few might feel that compound life is 
artificial and yearn to pitch a tent in the desert. 

If you are working in a city, instead of a compound you 
may live in an apartment or perhaps in a hotel. Apartments 
and hotels in Saudi Arabia are much the same as Western- 
style apartments and hotels anywhere else. This is no run- 
down country where you have to visit the well to pump 
water. Saudi Arabia has a developed infrastructure. Almost 
everywhere you will find the full suite of services — electricity, 
running water, sewerage and motor car access. 

Those not living in company-supplied accommodation 
can consult estate agents dealing with rental property. 
Rental leases can run either for an indefinite period or 
a specified period. Short-term and long-term leases are 
available. Rental accommodation is customarily provided 
with basic furnishings. The cost of rental accommodation, 
if required, varies greatly with location. The most expensive 
real estate in Saudi Arabia is in Mecca during the pilgrim 
season. As an expat, you are unlikely to live in Mecca unless 
you work for a large building contracting company with a 
contract to construct a high-rise building to service Mecca's 
construction boom. Jeddah, Riyadh and Al Khobar are more 
likely destinations. A website for those who wish to enquire 
about rental apartments and homes is: 
saudi_arabia/agen t_developers 
You may also wish to contact them for more information at 


By the standards of Asia, large cities in Saudi Arabia are 
reasonably user-friendly for the handicapped. Good hotels 

120 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

and public buildings tend to have reasonable access to ramps. 
But conditions of streets and sidewalks (if any exist) may 
be hazardous hazardous for the handicapped, particularly 
in the smaller towns. 


The monetary unit of Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Riyal (SAR), 
which since May 2008 has been pegged to the US dollar at the 
rate of SAR 3.76 to the dollar. The highest denomination note 
is SAR 500 and the smallest SAR 1 . Other notes of various 
denominations are in circulation down to the smallest value 
note of one riyal. The minor unit is the halalah which, at 
100 to the riyal, is of nuisance value only. 

Changing travellers cheques is generally more difficult 
in Saudi Arabia than most places. Many banks and money 
changers simply won't accept travellers cheques. Others 
will exchange only the particular issue of travellers cheques 
they deal in themselves. Also, unlike most places, you will 
need to present your original purchase receipt when cashing 
your travellers cheques. 

US dollar bank notes, everyone's favourite currency, are 
easy to exchange. Whatever you are changing, you are likely 
to get a better rate of exchange from money changers than 
from banks. 

Cash withdrawn at the local Automatic Teller Machine 
(ATM) linked to a home-based bank account is probably 
the easiest way to generate cash in the kingdom. Two 
advantages of ATMs, apart from convenience, is that they 
don't discriminate against females or close down for 
prayer calls. Credit cards are also widely accepted. Whatever 
method you select to meet your day-to-day expenses, 
people working in Saudi Arabia, living in free company 
housing, sending their kids to free school generally enjoy a 
highly subsidised lifestyle and don't need much more than 
petty cash when in Saudi Arabia. 

Except for restrictions on females, guest workers can 
open accounts with Saudi banks. But generally there is 
no need to do so. One of the authors did open a cheque 
account with a local bank while in Saudi Arabia, and closed 

Settling In 121 

it shortly afterwards. The hassles of operating the bank 
account were hardly worth the effort for little advantage. Most 
expatriate workers get their pay cheques credited directly 
into the banks in their own countries or elsewhere. There are 
no restrictions about sending currency out of Saudi 
Arabia. If you do want to enquire about Saudi banks, 
there are many available that may or may not have links 
to your offshore bank. A complete list of all the banks 
in the country, along with contact details, is available 
from the website: 

Local Banking Ethics 

The Saudi Arabian banking system isn't comfortable with 
some of the ethics of modern commerce. The Qur'an 
contains provisions precluding money usury, which is 
alternatively defined as 'interest' or 'exorbitant interest'. 
Whether exorbitant or not, Wahhabis aren't keen on the 
notion of interest at all. By the same token, the realities of 
the commercial world are recognised. Since interest is the 
keystone of the banking system, this ideological difficulty has 
rather limited the opportunities for Saudi banks. 

To overcome the problem, Saudi Arabia, in line with other 
Middle East countries, has two banking systems — Islamic 
and Western. Islamic banking invests only in companies 
that provide acceptable goods and services, develop Islamic 
products and conform to Shariah Law. Companies that 
provide social welfare services are favoured. Companies 
that deal in tobacco and alcohol are precluded. Some 
major international banks such as Cititbank and Hongkong 
Shanghai Banking Corporation have Islamic banking divisions 
operating in Saudi Arabia. 

Trading Hours 

Traditionally Saudi Arabia has worked siesta hours. 
Commercial hours for retailing are customarily from 
8:00 am-1 :00 pm, then 4:00 pm-8:00 pm (some variations 
may occur). Government offices may skip the afternoon shift 
and may only be open from 7:00 am-1 :00 pm. Some may 

122 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

stay open till 2:30 pm. These trading hours were established 
to suit the rigorous climate of the country. With the advent 
of air-conditioning, the climate is less relevant than it once 
was — at least inside the offices and malls. Many offices now 
work more normal business hours — 9:00 am-5:00 pm, or 
something similar. These hours apply most of the year except 
Ramadan, when retail businesses are extensively shut during 
daylight hours, but are normally open in the evening. 

Since Friday is the religious day, the working week is 
from Saturday to Wednesday. Weekends are on Thursday 
and Friday. Businesses and government offices are normally 
closed and most shops are normally opened during weekend 
trading hours. 

As well as their regular opening and closing times, shops 
will also close three or four times a day for prayers. The 
practice of closing down for prayers can seem remarkably 
inconvenient to the Western shopper. Experienced 
shoppers time their shopping expeditions to fit in with 
prayer timetables. The most efficient shopping expedition 
is one in which prayer time is spent travelling either to or 
from shops. Prayer times vary according to a sliding scale 
depending on the times for dawn, dusk and the phases of 
the moon. Lists of prayer times obtainable from places like 
bookstores are worth getting as an aid to scheduling appoints 
and shopping expeditions. Prayer times are also provided in 
daily newspapers. 


Electricity supply is reliable and power cuts are uncommon. 
Electric power is supplied principally at North American 
voltage and frequency— 110 volts and 60 Hertz. But in many 
offices and hotels and some residential homes, a 220v/50Hz 
outlet is available. Voltage regulators are recommended to 
protect appliances from supply fluctuations. Sockets and 
plugs are not standardised and vary between the British, 
US and European types. Those travelling in Saudi Arabia are 
advised to take a transformer to obtain the correct voltage for 
their appliances, and to carry a plentiful supply of adaptors 
to fit the various plug types. 

Settling In 123 


Saudis of quite modest means engage domestic 
servants from East Asian and sub-continent countries. 
Guest workers in upper socio-economic groups may 
wish to do the same. Unless it is provided in the 
employment package, expatriates who wish to employ 
domestic help will probably enter into an informal 
arrangement with someone already in the kingdom working 
for someone else. Plenty of Third Country employees are 
on the lookout for moonlighting jobs to supplement their 
incomes. More permanent arrangements are unlikely to 
be convenient since the visas for domestic employees bind 
employees to specific employers and no one else. Saudi 
Arabia expects its guest workforce to visit the kingdom for 
the specific purpose of undertaking an employment contract 
for a specific employer for a specific contract period at the 
end of which they are expected to leave. 


Visitors with a valid driver's licence from most countries, or 
an international driver's licenses, are allowed to drive in the 
kingdom for up to three months. After that, foreign licences 
can be converted to Saudi licences without undergoing a local 
driving test— but with the usual small mountain of paperwork 
required in Saudi Arabia for such transactions — including 
a translation of the licence into Arabic, a letter from your 
employer, an application form, and a copy of your Iqama. 

Good quality highways connect major cities. Travelling 
long distances in quick time is comfortable provided your 
car has a good air-conditioner. Petrol is cheap. Inside towns 
and cities, the customary traffic snarls may sometimes occur 
as they do anywhere. But between cities, traffic flows freely. 
Compared to most countries, the traffic on roads is light. In 
2005, the rate of car ownership was about 420 cars per head 
of population— similar to western countries. A point to be 
noted is that over half the adult indigenous adult population 
—Saudi women— are not permitted to drive. But that hasn't 
prevented Saudi women from owning cars. According to 
figures supplied by ARAMCO, 75,522 women owned 1 20,334 

124 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

vehicles by the end of 2006 — all, so far as is known, driven 
by male chauffeurs. 

That's the good news about driving. The bad news is that 
the nation's highways and byways are downright dangerous 
places to be. Those who hold that the female of the species is 
the more dangerous one on the roads than the male will find 
little support for their case from the road accident statistics of 
Saudi Arabia. That Saudi roads are perilous places is evident 
merely by driving through the countryside. The nation's 
highways are littered with wrecked cars that are merely 
dragged to the side of the road and abandoned as a silent 
testimony to the hazards of driving on the nation's roads. 

The Perils of Motoring 

Based on fatalities per head of population, a World Bank report in 
the year 2000 found that Saudi Arabia, along with Malaysia, Thailand 
and South Africa, were the most dangerous countries in which to 
drive. Saudi Arabia fared even worse in comparison when this was 
measured in fatalities per vehicle.Saudi Arabia has road accidents 
at about three times the rate of Western countries like the USA and 
Britain. Various studies have also been conducted to determine the 
cause of Saudi Arabia's high accident rate. According one of many 
reports on the subject— an epidemiology of road traffic accidents 
in the Al-Ahssaa Governorate: 'Very high speed was responsible for 
about 70 per cent of accidents'. (Alcohol can certainly be ruled out 
as a principal cause of accidents.) 

Settling In 125 

Driving standards in Saudi Arabia are on a par with the 
worst anywhere. In the opinion of the authors and absolutely 
unsupported by any research that we know of, there is one 
particular element of Arab culture that seems to us to make 
driving hazardous. Science has shown that about 40 per cent 
of the evaporative losses from a human body labouring under 
a hot sun are through the top of the head. Arabs developed 
the appropriate headgear to deal with this problem. For camel 
driving across the sunny deserts of Saudi Arabia, the gutra 
is no doubt ideally suited to the job of providing shade and 
preserving bodily fluids. But this item of national apparel is 
not equally suited to all forms of locomotion. One aspect of 
gufra-wearing renders it particularly unsuited for driving cars. 
The fall of the material on both sides of the face obscures 
peripheral vision. Saudi drivers seem particularly bad at 
seeing other cars coming at them from the side. 

In addition, a popular view among expats is that Saudi 
drivers bring to the roads their carefree fatalistic attitude that 
events on the road, and in life in general, are in the hands of 

a higher authority than themselves. This being the case, they 
might argue, what difference does it make to speed around 
blind corners and over crests on the wrong side of the road? 
What is going to happen is going to happen. 

Whatever the cause of their bad driving, Saudi Arabia is a 
country where you should, above all things, drive defensively. 

126 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

When you are at the wheel, assume that the nation's roads 
are likely to be peopled by semi-blind maniacs travelling 
towards you at high speed and not necessarily on their side of 
the road. Never suppose that people will stop at intersections 
or stop at red lights. In cities, always expect that cars may 
pop out in front of you from streetside parking spots. And 
remember that whatever the circumstances of an accident, 
under Shariah Law, if you hit a car driven by a Saudi, you 
will most likely be blamed, however blameless you consider 
yourself to be. 

Handling Road Accidents 

Assuming you are tolerant of religion, not mounting a 
crusade to topple the government and refraining from 
selling alcoholic drinks to the local population, the most 
common legal problem you are likely to encounter in Saudi 
Arabia is a road accident. That said, many expats do drive 
in Saudi Arabia and emerge from the experience unscathed. 
But if an accident occurs and you are involved, the Saudi 
authorities will dispense blame for the accident in a fairly 
ad hoc manner across whoever happens to be at the scene 
of the crime. Rough justice can be administered, with the 
risk that the innocent may be enmeshed in the outcome 
along with the guilty. 

Underlying Saudi law is the concept of qisas, or retribution. 
Under this code, when a crime occurs, a similar level of 
suffering is meant to be inflicted on the perpetrator of the 
crime as has been inflicted on the victim. Saudi law may take 
the Biblical maxim of 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' 
quite literally. For example, in 2000, an Egyptian expatriate 
worker had his eye surgically removed after he threw acid in 
the face of another man, causing his victim to lose an eye. 

As an alternative or an addition to punishment, the Shariah 
Law of diya also allows the concept of blood money. As well as 
being punished by the state, the perpetrator of a road accident 
is expected to compensate the victim, or if the victim has 
been killed in the accident, the victim's family. Saudi courts 
will prescribe the payment of blood money based not so 
much on the injuries inflicted but on the status of the victim 

Settling In 1 

and the ability of the perpetrator to pay. (The West, which 
has a very poor record for compensating victims of crime, 
might take note of this!) 

Getting Third Party Insurance 
(And Staying Out of Jail) 

Blame for road accidents may be apportioned to innocent victims 
of road accidents on the grounds that if they hadn't been at the 
scene of the accident, nothing would have happened. Expats can 
expect to fare worse in these situations than Saudis for whom a 
lesser burden for proof of innocence is required. 

Any expat driving in Saudi Arabia must ensure they have 
comprehensive insurance cover, and should carry a full set 
of insurance and personal travel documents whenever they 
undertake a journey on Saudi roads. In recent years, compulsory 
third-party insurance has been introduced in line with what 
is practiced in most countries. Since 2002, both resident and 
non-resident drivers in transit are required to apply for rukhsa — 
equivalent to third-party insurance in other countries— to protect 
drivers against personal injury claims from other drivers. Rukhsa 
insurance covers third party rights to diya—or blood money 
claims for relatives of road victims. A statement from Allied 
Company for Co-operative Insurance and Reinsurance provided 
these words by way of explaining the principle of rukhsa: 

'Rukhsa covers the blood money of a person killed. In the 
absence of this cover, the erring driver would remain in police 
custody until the blood money, a bond or a guarantee from his 
sponsor was furnished.' 

There are a couple of common sense rules about road 
accidents. In the first place, if this is someone else's road 
accident— stay out of it. Saudi Arabia is not the place to 
discharge the role of good and dutiful citizen. If you come 
across a road accident, and feel a compulsion to become 
involved, bear in mind that when the authorities arrive, the 
first thing they are likely to do is throw a cordon around 
the scene of the crime. Anyone inside the cordon will be 
considered involved. The damaged cars will be dragged to 

128 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

the side of the road, where they may stay for a very long time 
and perpetrators, victims and bystanders at the scene of the 
accident are all likely to be taken away by the authorities for 
processing. Justice can operate very rapidly and inaccurately. 
Or the enquiry may be prolonged. Perfectly innocent 
bystanders might have to spend weeks in jail while enquiries 
are conducted regarding their degree of involvement. Once 
released, if the case is not concluded, witnesses might have 
to stay in the kingdom for months, denied exit permits 
while cases drag on. Only those with a hyper-acute sense of 
public duty are going to get involved in someone else's road 
accident in this country. 

If this is your own accident, things are decidedly trickier. It 
is easy enough to state that you should avoid an accident. But 
the nature of accidents is that they happen. One of the risks 
of driving in Saudi Arabia is to be involved in an accident in 
which, in your own country, you would have been considered 
entirely blameless. Various judges have enunciated to guest 
worker defendants of traffic charges the principle of Saudi law 
on this matter— the accident must be your fault, since if you 
had not been there, the accident would not have happened. 
One of the authors has personal experience witnessing an 
accident at an intersection where the Saudi driver went 
through a red light and collided with a car— driven by an 
expat— executing a left-hand turn. The expat was held guilty 
on the grounds that the light showing on the street he was 
turning into was red at the time of the accident. Besides, if 
he hadn't been there, he wouldn't have been hit. That sort of 
logic is hard to beat in court. 

As a last word on this subject, if you do happen to end 
up in jail for some reason, make sure someone knows you 
are there. Saudi Arabia is a free enterprise economy. Jails in 
Saudi Arabia provide only the minimum of accommodation 
services. Luxury items like food, water and toilet paper are 
meant to be provided by friends or family of the detained. 


There are two types of taxis in Saudi Arabia— coded by 
colour — white taxis (limousines) and yellow taxis (ordinary 

Settling In 129 

taxis). In most cases, limousines, which also co-ordinate with 
hotels, are to be preferred should the choice be available. 
Fares are generally reasonable. As an additional caution, 
unaccompanied women are advised against taking a yellow 
taxi due to the problems that might ensue from being 
caught by the religious police with a strange man in an 
enclosed space. 

The habits of Saudi taxi drivers are similar to the habits 
of taxi drivers worldwide. They drive fast and they have a 
reputation, whether earned or not, for sharp practice. The 
standard of taxi-driving in Saudi Arabia is probably no better 
or no worse than anywhere else. In a country where the 
accident rate is amongst the highest in the world, you are 
probably safer in a taxi than with most Saudi drivers. 

In taking a taxi, as in all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia, 
religion may influence the experience. Taxi drivers are 
theoretically supposed to stop whatever they are doing when 
prayer time is announced. (Airline pilots seem to be exempt 
from this requirement.) In practice, many taxi drivers may 
pull over during the journey and conduct their prayers at the 
side of a road or even in a mosque. The polite thing for you 
to do in this situation is to wait. Another option is to catch a 
bus, should you be able to find one heading in your intended 
direction. Clerics appear to have granted bus drivers a general 
exemption from the obligation to pray— at least while in 
the act of driving the bus. 


That Saudi Arabian towns generally lack street names and 
house numbers has restricted the Saudi Arabian postal 
delivery to sending mail to private mail boxes of which the 
country has about 700,000. Normal practice is to use a post 
office box number. In recent times, Saudi Post has embarked 
on a programme to overcome the country's absence of a 
street addressing system. Initially, streets will be coded 
by number. Ultimately, assisted by GPS technology, each 
individual building will be recorded on a database using a 
13-digit code, which becomes the address of the building. If 
successful, this will enable person-to-person mail delivery, 

130 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

as practiced in other countries. This programme started in 
Riyadh in 2006 and is expanding into other cities. 


The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Information extensively 
scrutinises media entering the country for religious purity 
and political correctness. Detailed interpretation of the 
Qur'an during the 1970s determined that screening a film 
for public viewing in a cinema was against the rules, but 
broadcasting the same films into people's homes on TV 
was permissible. In reaching this ruling, the Saudis may 
have objected less to the content of the films than to the 
cinema itself. Neither the clerics nor the authorities liked 
the idea of a crowd of strangers gathering in a dark place 
where conspiracies could be hatched, lewd acts could be 
performed and bombs could be exploded. This rule was 
cautiously relaxed in 2005. The cinema is located at Riyadh 
Hotel and shows foreign cartoons dubbed in Arabic. The 
audience is excluively women and children and sidesteps 
religious demands for gender segregation. 

Though cinemas are restricted, popular Westerns and other 
films are screened on TV. Government censors hack and slash 
content at will. Politically offensive material, such as content 
interpreted as pro-Israel or anti-Muslim, may be taken out. 
Large gaps in films when the screen goes blank (as distinct from 
cutting and splicing) may appear without notice, indicating that 
material showing physical contact between male and female 
has been removed. Since the dialogue also goes missing in the 
sequences, this can render the story line hard to follow. 

A Word from the Chief Censor 

The level of censorship can be quite informal and unpredictable 
and can be subject to decisions at the highest level. In one 
incident, at 10:00 pm one night, King Fahd telephoned the Saudi 
Minister of Information, Mr Ali Al Shaer, to complain about an Indian 
film that was being screened. The call came through on a party line 
and was heard by a Lebanese newspaper editor, who reported it 
to the wider community. "I don't care if you are halfway through 
the film," the King is alleged to have said, "stop it and put on an 
American film instead." 

Settling In 131 

If you are curious to find out what Saudi television is about 
and you are a non-Arabic speaker, Channel 2 broadcasts 
exclusively in English, except for a French-language newscast 
every night at 8:00 pm. Those in the Eastern Province can 
also receive Aramco's TV station, Channel 3. It tends to be 
more up-to-date than Channel, 2 and provides a film service 
in English. 

State-owned and censored Saudi TV has come under intense 
competition in recent times from TV broadcasts by more liberal 
neighbours. Arab TV newscasting really made a hit with the 
world during the second Gulf War. Likewise, Al Jazeera, the 
Qatar-based news channel, presented a much more balanced 
view of the war than the likes of CNN. Al Jazeera had more 
correspondents on the ground in Iraq during the conflict and 
presented a ground-based view of the fighting. During this 
time, Al Jazeera claimed 35 million viewers and its reports 
made from within Iraq were carried by TV stations around 
the world. (According to documents subsequently released, 
George Bush proposed to bomb Al Jazeera in Qatar for 
presenting what he considered an 'anti-American' view of his 
war in Iraq. Allegedly, he was talked out of taking this action 
by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.) 

A new station, Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, is broadcast on 
Jordan and Saudi state-owned TV and reaches a potential 
audience of 13 million, in addition to its satellite audience. 
Abu Dhabi TV is also well established and is second to 
Al Jazeera in popularity. Satellite TV is now widely available, 
allowing guest workers to stay in touch with developments 
back home and elsewhere. Theoretically, satellite TV is illegal 
in Saudi Arabia. The profusion of satellite dishes on roof 
tops and the walls of buildings bears testament that this 
provision is not widely enforced. The website 
at, lists 16 channels that 
are favourites around the world like American sports, CNN, 
BBC and Discovery. 

Like most of the developed world, watching TV is a 
favourite pastime. To maintain cultural, political and religious 
purity, every television set sold in Saudi Arabia has an 
encoded blocker which blocks incoming satellite TV signals. 

132 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

The highest TV viewing period is during Ramadan, when 
Arab TV stations launch their new programmes. This is also 
the busiest period for TV technicians hired by television set 
owners to unblock the blockers so that viewers can access 
racy Egyptian and Lebanese dramas the censors would prefer 
them not to watch. 

In addition to TV, various radio stations broadcast a wide 
content in various languages. Radio AFRD, the US military 
station, The Voice of the Desert— in 1 950 one of the first radio 
stations in the world to broadcast in FM— pioneered the 
idea of completely ignoring the culture of the host nation. 
To sooth its troops, AFRD played only a format of Western 
music. Radio Aramco, specialising in American country and 
western music like a broadcaster in backwoods Virginia, did 
likewise. These days, Saudi Arabia has 43 AM and 31 FM, as 
well as two short-wave radio stations. 


Shopping is a major social activity for Saudis, particularly 
women, who otherwise tend to be housebound. Shopping 
in Saudi Arabia can be like shopping anywhere, or it can 


Be accompanied by a close male 
relate whew they ^ 

eo All W SHomrti! 

134 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

have its own distinctive flavour. Like the rest of the world, 
Saudi Arabia offers a choice of shopping malls, shopping 
plazas with Western-style supermarkets filled with familiar 
brand names. 

In Jeddah, the Jamjoom Commercial Centre, just off the 
corniche, is a distinctive blue glass and chrome complex. 
In Riyadh, the Al-Akariyya Mall is well known for its high 
fashion and wide range of European merchandise. Shopping 
centre prices are mostly fixed, though a spot of bargaining 
can sometimes yield results. Merchandise on sale is not quite 
unlimited. The normal Saudi standards of modesty apply 
in malls as elsewhere. Shops in the kingdom do not stock 
the chic merchandise that can be seen in the neighbouring 
countries like the UAE or Qatar. 

The country has also retained its souqs— markets of street 
stalls found in every large town where gold, fabrics, wall 
hangings, jewellery, brass coffee pots and bric-a-brac are on 
sale, and the aroma of incense and spices hangs in the air. 
Gold in the form of coins, small bullion bars, jewellery and 
ornaments is widely traded in the country. 

An expatriate man accompanies his wife and mother as they go shopping 
in the souq. 

Settling In 135 

Riyadh's camel market is one of the largest in the world and is said to sell 
about 100 camels every day. 

At the souq, the price of almost anything is negotiable to a 
point known only to the vendor. If you have the patience, you 
can haggle down to rock bottom prices, but the process takes 
time and can be hard work under the pitiless Arabian sun. 
Serious bargaining requires certain rituals to be conducted, 
including walking out on your vendor's 'last price' at least 
a couple of times. 

Feminine hygiene products do not sell well in supermarkets. 
Saudi women are likely to be too embarrassed to take 
such items to the (male) checkout 'chick'. Instead, Saudi 
women source their personal hygiene needs at the 
souqs specialising in these products and staffed by other 
women. In the Kingdom Shopping Centre in Riyadh, an 
exclusive floor into which men may not venture is provided 
for 'Ladies Only'. 

If you happen to be in the market to buy a camel, the 
world's largest (and allegedly smelliest) camel market is 
situated on the outskirts of Riyadh, about 30 km (1 8.6 miles) 
from the city centre. 


'Saudi Arabia's food is a reflection of the country's history 
and its people's customs, religion and ways of life.' 
— Ni'Mah Isma'il Nawwab, The Culinary Kingdom 

Food and Entertaining 137 


Traditional Saudi food derives from ingredients that were 
available in historical times. Milk products, including yoghurt 
and cheese from goats, sheep and camels were animal-based 
staples. Dates, rice and millet were vegetable-based staples. 
Meat was scarce, but appreciated. Sources of meat for the 
Bedouin were their own animals and the occasional wild 
game that once lived on the Arabian Peninsula (and has 
since been hunted nearly to extinction). Fresh fruits and 
vegetables were available at oases and in the high country 
in the south-west. 

Nowadays, diet tends to feature meat, mostly imported, as 
the main ingredient. Cooking methods derive from the open 
fires of the Bedouin. Meat is generally flame-cooked, roasted 
on spits, either vertical or horizontal. Dishes are often served 
with a rice base and served with various spiced and spicy 
vegetables and sauces. Most main dishes are accompanied by 
a great variety of pita or khboz (flat) breads that are cooked 
to order and eaten fresh from the baker's oven. The most 
common ingredient in sweets is dates, which is really Saudi 
Arabia's traditional foodstuff. 

Saudi Arabia's water supply is a mixture of ground water 
(rapidly depleting) and desalinated water. Depending on 
the area, you may be advised to use bottled water for both 
drinking and cooking. Bottled water is widely available across 
the kingdom. 

Food and Entertaining 139 

Stuffed Camel and Other Favourites 

To amuse themselves during their not so busy hours, a group of expat 
women on a construction site in Saudi Arabia wrote and published 
a cookbook, Stuffed Camel and Other Favourites. The book is not 
currently in print, but one of the authors has a rare copy, thought to 
be priceless due to its scarcity value. This sample of dishes from the 
book is a representative sample of a few Saudi favourites: 




Salatat Bathinjan 
Adas Bit Hamod 
Hummus bi Tahina 

boiled flavoured rice with chicken or 
mutton (probably Saudi's number 
one dish) 

thinly sliced lamb or chicken rolled 
with pickles. 

deep fried balls of ground chickpeas, 

flavoured with garlic and herbs 

hot pepper dip 

aubergine appetiser 

stuffed pastry squares 

lentils with lemon juice 

chickpea and sesame dip 

You can get most foodstuffs in Saudi Arabia, but the one 
item definitely off the menu is pork. For those who must eat 
bacon or pork, the nearest source, at least for those on the 
east coast, is across the causeway in Bahrain. 


As a country that caters for its international workforce from 
most parts of the world, you can probably find a restaurant 
to enjoy your own cuisine— or anyone else's— in Saudi 
Arabia. Western, other Middle Eastern (e.g. Lebanese) and 
Asian (Indian, Thai, Filipino) food of various styles — even 
fish and chip shops— are all readily available. Most globalised 
fast food outlets are also represented in the kingdom; 
McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Wendy's are just 
some who have operations in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, 
Saudis have adopted McDonald's strategy and created 
fast food outlets of their own, thereby undercutting the 
US fast food chains. 

Food is inexpensive in Saudi Arabia, bearing in mind 
that it is mostly imported. Restaurant prices are generally 
reasonable. Budget meals can still be obtained for about 
US$ 4-5. Prices in classier establishments go up from 

140 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

there. Tips are not generally expected by table staff. Most 
restaurants levy a service charge, generally thought to be 
appropriated by restaurant owners instead of waiters, who 
tend to be underpaid. 

As in most things, dining out imposes restrictions on 
women. The general rule is that women who are out and 
about should be accompanied by a male who is a close family 
member. Women not accompanied by an appropriate male 
may not be served. Arrests of women dining in restaurants 
unaccompanied by males, or accompanied by the incorrect 
male, have been reported. Many restaurants will not admit 
a group of women without a male guardian in attendance. 
Fast food outlets like McDonald's have separate sections for 
men and women. 

The act of eating poses problems with the female dress 
code requiring that the only parts of a woman's face the 
outside world allowed on display are the eyes. Lifting the 
corner of the veil to allow passage of food to the mouth 
violates strict rules on covering. To overcome this difficulty, 
when dining at restaurants, Saudi women are customarily 
positioned at tables so they are facing the wall, whereas 
the men of the family will sit with their backs to the wall 
facing outwards. This, in theory, avoids the problem that 
a stranger might catch a glimpse of prohibited flesh when 
a female lifts her veil to allow the passage of food to the 
mouth. Alternatively, to ensure seclusion, individual tables 
in restaurants may be curtained off from other tables. 


Like people elsewhere in the world, a Saudi may derive 
much pleasure and pride from his house. Once a Saudi gets 
to know you, an invitation to his home is likely to follow. 
Such an invitation may not merely be to enjoy the pleasure 
of your company. Like people elsewhere, Saudis may also 
be displaying to their visitors and new friends a statement 
of their assets, their skills at interior decorating and their 
status in life generally. Appreciative comments you make 
about the quality of the structure and the standard of the 
appointments will be highly valued. But be cautious with 

Food and Entertaining 141 

your remarks. Arab culture errs on the side of generosity. 
After effusive praise of some item that's not bolted to the 
floor, the next thing you know your Saudi host may try 
to give it to you! It is better to restrict your compliments 
to immovable objects like architecture, dining tables 
and carpets. 

Saudis, it is probably fair to say, have a different idea 
of interior decorating to much of the rest of the world. 
Value of the artefact rather than consistency of style is the 
major criterion. Saudis enjoy decorating each room in all 
the colours of the spectrum and displaying objets d'art of 
many different styles. Clashes of colour and culture are the 
norm, not the exception. You are likely to find a valuable 
vase bought in Florence, coloured blue, next to an antique 
bronze Persian coffee set displayed on an ultra-modern 
anodised bronze setting in a room painted in four different 
colours with a patterned carpet that includes all the colours 
of the rainbow. Needless to say, the hospitable thing to 
do is to praise the display lavishly, as Saudis would of 
the contents of your home, whatever they really thought 
of them. 

Central to the entertainment area of some Saudi Arabian 
homes is a bar. A fair number of, though not all, Saudis 
take an impish delight in flouting their country's prohibition 
laws. If a bar has been installed, it is likely to be incredibly 
well stocked. In a country where the street value of spirits 
is over US$ 100 from a black market supplier, your host 
will probably offer you anything that an upmarket hotel 
would supply. 

The finishing (or lack of it) is another cultural aspect that 
is likely to catch the eye of those who are being invited 
to comment on the splendours of a Saudi house. Saudi 
building contractors are remarkably slack about 
finishing their jobs. The million-dollar display of family 
possessions is as likely as not to be illuminated by 
a naked 100-watt globe hanging from the ceiling 
by a frayed electrical wire. Electrical switches may protrude 
from the wall supported only by their wiring. On the porch 
of the house may lie a pile of masonry waiting collection 

142 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

by a civic authority that may have disbanded some 
years before. 

Saudis seem oblivious to such incongruities. The country 
has not adopted a culture of tidiness. Litter abounds. Piles of 
masonry are likely to lie scattered beside and on the streets 
of expensive suburbs. Exteriors of buildings tend to have 
panels missing. Saudis are not maintenance conscious. If 
bits fall off their buildings, they are unlikely to be replaced 
in a hurry, if at all. Saudis are notorious in failing to service 
their cars, then abandoning them by the roadside when they 
break down. 

Perhaps the attitude stems from the country's appearance 
as one huge building project: a nation that seems perpetually 
unfinished. The population of the country is growing at nearly 
2 per cent per annum, which means that it's doubling every 
35 years or so. City construction is proceeding at a prodigious 
rate to accommodate this burgeoning urban population. One 
of the most common vehicles on the road is the ubiquitous 
Mercedes truck, usually coloured grey, carrying loads of fill 
material to reshape the Saudi landscape in accordance with 
the requirements of man. 


Arabs are traditionally hospitable, outgoing people. Some 
of this tradition stems from the Bedouin days when 
custom required that any visitor who might stumble onto 
the campsite be offered a meal. In the days when water 
and food were scarce, nomads relied on mutual support 
for survival. 

Some Bedouins adopt their nomadic ways only on a 
part-time basis, spending the rest of their time living a life 
indistinguishable from the rest of the population. A Bedouin 
may be a geologist, a doctor or a bell hop. Or he may be 
the Saudi working at the desk next to yours who will one 
day surprise you with his Bedouinism when he invites 
you out to meet his extended family camping out in the 
desert nearby. If you accept his invitation, your colleague 
may arrange a lunch in your honour. He may take you to 
the family tent pitched somewhere in the desert. When 

Food and Entertaining 143 

you arrive at the destination, having probably travelled by 
minibus rather than by the more traditional camel, you may 
observe that many of the traditions of the tribe are still in 
place— the tents, the goats, the sheep, and camels. Blended 
with traditional items are the inevitable accoutrements of 
the modern age— motor vehicles, portable TVs and today's 
most ubiquitous mandatory accessory, the cellphone. Most 
likely you will then spend an hour or two sitting around an 
enormous tray bearing a spit-roasted sheep resting on a bed 
of rice flavoured with raisins, nuts and spices. The meal will 
be washed down with cardamom-flavoured coffee served 
in tiny cups. 

Dining practice Bedouin-style is an area where things are 
pretty liberal. The custom is to take food with the right hand, 
tearing and rolling them up in bread, rice or whatever other 
absorbent foods might be available, before transporting them 
to your mouth. 

Saudis are not sticklers about their table manners. Since 
they use their fingers as cutlery, they are not too fussy about 
licking their fingers clean, though finger bowls are often 
provided. Eating heartily when invited to dine is considered 
good manners. Over indulgence isn't one of the seven 
deadly sins of Islamic culture. Burping appreciatively after an 
expansive meal verges on good form. Take your cues from 
the other diners in this area. 

Meals and coffee drinking are central to traditional 
Arab hospitality. Most people visiting Saudi Arabia have 
heard the story, thought to be factual, of the sheep's eye. 
According to this account, the eye of the animal being 
eaten is offered to the most honoured guest. The 
guest accepts this delicacy since refusing would create 
offence. (Western visitors knowledgeable on this point 
of etiquette will most likely endeavour not to be the 
honoured guest.) 

On the other hand, if you charge unannounced and 
uninvited into a Bedouin camp (according to an Australian 
senior diplomat), don't be surprised if your initial greeting 
is a bullet, a warning shot whistling past the windscreen 
of your pickup. Gun culture ranks Bedouins as one 

144 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

of the world's most heavily armed societies. Most 
guns and explosives that enter the country for illicit 
purposes such as trading to Saudi Arabia's jihadi are 
smuggled across the 1 ,300 km border from Yemen. More 
traditionally, the smuggled commodity has been qat, a leafy 
stimulant grown in Yemen and, like the guns, also illegal 
in Saudi Arabia. 

After the sound of the shot across the bows of the pickup 
dies down, the recommended procedure to demonstrate, 
for Arabic speakers is to announce your peaceful intentions 
by shouting, "Salaam Alaikuml" ('Peace be with you'). 
One word of caution though. Protocol regarding the use 
of the phrase Salaam Aliakum is rather controversial since 
the greeting was prescribed as a declaration of peace 
between believers, rather than between believers and 
non-believers. To avoid such cross cultural complications, 
it may be safer to say "Hi" or "Hello" when trying to 
make friends with a Bedouin pointing a smoking AK47 
in your direction. 

After such an intimidating introduction, the situation will 
most likely improve. Survival in the desert has long been 
precarious. The code of the desert was, and still is, to lend 
a helping hand to other nomads, knowing that one day 
you might need the favour returned. After the exchange 
of greetings is completed, you will most likely be invited 
inside the tent to drink tea or maybe partake of a feast if one 
is available. 


Streets scenes in Saudi Arabia have a European flavour, 
though perhaps not everyone would agree that downtown 
Al Khobar resembles the left bank of the Seine. But 
Saudi Arabian towns do share with the streetscapes 
of Paris the penchant for coffee shops. The sidewalk 
tables of coffee shops seem to spill out carelessly in 
all directions. 

Saudis camp at these tables for what seems like an entire 
day sipping coffee out of tiny cups and perhaps smoking 
with their companions through a common rosewater 

Food and Entertaining 145 

filled hookah. Coffee shops are one of the major social 
outlets for the not-very-well-off of Saudi male society. 
These shops are the Saudi equivalent of a bar or pub in the 
West. A recent variant has been 'parlours', separated into 
booths containing a hookah that can be shared between 
its guests. 

Coffee is a central feature of Saudi life. Arabian coffee 
is thick and sludgy, and taken in tiny cups. Other types of 
coffee — Turkish, American or French — are generally available 
if preferred. Traditionally, coffee is served in decorated brass 
coffee jugs with long slender spouts and delicate metal 
handles. The modern version of this item is a thermos flask 
that replicates the traditional shape. When you are offered 
Arab coffee, your cup will continually be refilled unless you 
make the appropriate gesture of refusal— shaking your cup 
to show you have had enough. The custom is to drink two 
or three cups. If you drink only one cup, you may send an 
unintended signal that the quality of the coffee is not quite 
up to scratch. 

The Arab world has some claims to the invention of 
coffee as a beverage, although its origins are uncertain. 
Arabian legends of antiquity mention a 'black and bitter 
beverage with the powers of stimulation'. The Ethiopian 
region of Kaffa, according to most historians, originated 
coffee and supplied the basis for its name. According 
to this account, Arab traders brought the beans across 
the Red Sea into present day Yemen, to the port of 
Mocca (Mocha), which also became a word synonymous 
with coffee. 

Arabs call coffee gahwa, a word that later became Arabic 
for 'that which prevents sleep'. The first coffee shops in the 
world were probably those which opened in Mecca around 
the mid-1 5th to 1 6th century. This is, in itself, curious. Under 
strict interpretation of the rules of Islam, consumption of 
coffee is prohibited since it is a stimulant. Saudis of rigid 
orthodoxy will not take coffee. However, the bulk of the 
population maintains a steady intake of the black and bitter 
beverage, and may, as an additional vice, even chew coffee 
beans while at prayer in the mosque. 

146 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

In its first days as a multiracial society, prohibition against 
drinking alcohol in Saudi Arabia applied only to Muslims. 
In 1 930, after a passing drunk assassinated the British Vice 
Consul in Riyadh, prohibition was extended to the general 
community, including guest workers. 

Like other countries that have practised prohibition, the 
consumption of alcohol has not ceased but merely gone 
underground, in Saudi Arabia's case, not far underground. 
Though Saudi Arabia is a prohibition state, the authorities 
tolerate discreet consumption of the evil fluid of the infidel 
provided its production and consumption does not become 
too obvious. Saudis don't really care all that much whether 
alcohol addles the brains of its guest population. Everyone, 
including the Ulema, knows that violation of prohibition 
measures is common among the expat population and even 
Saudis themselves. 

Amateur beer and winemaking in Saudi Arabia is a minor 
industry and a major interest in the lives of many expats. 
Supermarkets in the kingdom sell vast amounts of the four 
principal ingredients for home brewing— sugar, hop-flavoured 
malt, alcohol-free beer and grape juice. Hop-flavoured malt, 
ostensibly for making bread, is the key ingredient in locally 
brewed beer. Grape juice, sold in resealable bottles to store 
the final product, is the key ingredient for locally brewed 
wines, and provides the container for both home-brewed 
beer and wine. Expats organise competitions and award each 
other accolades for the best in home-made wine and beer. 
The increased security levels has made it more difficult for 
people living in different compounds to visit each other and a 
consequence of this is that illicit activities like the brewing of 
alcoholic beverages has been driven further underground. 

In addition to home brew, a full range of spirits are available 
in the kingdom to all and sundry through an extensive black 
market. Wine is not quite so easy to get. Black market booze 
is a highly profitable business for the whole supply chain from 
the importer to the final distributor. The operation to flout 
the government's laws, a multi-million dollar import business 
that has been running for decades, could hardly be conducted 

Food and Entertaining 147 

without the knowledge of the consent and involvement of the 
highest authorities in the Department of Customs. 

The Case of the Tipsy Piano 

On one occasion, the story goes, a shipping container, ostensibly 
containing pianos, was inadvertently dropped on the wharf at a 
Saudi port, with remarkable side effects. The pianos appeared 
to be leaking. A strange liquid that smelled remarkably like 
Scotch whisky dripped from the base of the container — one 
of thousands of cargoes that have entered the country under 
false documentation. 

Commercial spirits of every conceivable kind — whisky, 
gin, bourbon, whatever the market demands — enter the 
country by the container load and are distributed through 
an extensive network of dealers to consumers paying 
US$ 100-plus a bottle. Various stills in the country produce 
large quantities of hooch called sidiqui, which in Arabic 
means 'my friend'. T-shirts proclaiming, 'Sid Diqui is my 
friend' are popular apparel amongst Western expatriates 
working in the kingdom. 

148 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Discreet drinking of alcohol in the privacy of your home 
or someone else's home in a compound is fairly risk- 
free. Authorities are prepared to tolerate the home brew 
alcohol industry provided activities remain within expat 
communities. Even so, it's not a good idea to indulge in 
selling home-made booze, even to other expatriates. It's a 
much worse idea to sell booze to the Saudis. Expat 'bootleg 
bandits' who sell alcohol to Saudis take a big risk and, at the 
same time, may jeopardise the entire home brew subculture 
by attracting the attention of the authorities. Driving while 
under the influence is also a very serious offence and a very 
bad idea. Penalties for drugs offences are more serious again 
—the penalty for drug trafficking is death, and there are 
no exceptions. 

Home Brewing and Poisoned Microbes 

Though the authorities have reached a tacit agreement amongst 
themselves to leave the home-brewing industry alone, the Mutawa'een 
can be unpredictable. Occasionally people get caught and are charged. 
One acquaintance tells of living in a compound of expat Westerners 
in which wine- and beer-brewing was an established subculture. Wine 
and beer tastings were an accepted form of entertainment, as was 
an annual competition for the best wine. People had hundreds of 
bottles of wine and beer in cupboards around their houses, fermenting 
and reaching a drinkable condition. One day, a rumour circulated 
that the Mutawa'een were intending to raid the compound looking 
for alcohol. Residents were advised to unload their stocks — which 
they all promptly did by draining their bottles down the sink — with 
little thought for where the product might end up after it had been 
discharged into the drainage system. Shortly after a slug of alcohol 
arrived at the sewage treatment plant, it killed those bacteria whose 
role in the grand scheme of life is to eat waste products that humans 
must produce to stay alive, and thereby convert active sewage into 
harmless constituents. As a result, the sewage plant was knocked 
out of action for a month. 


'Travel expands the behind.' 
—Sir David Frost, BBC commentator, 
Surviving the Climate 

150 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


To a potential visitor, the image of Saudi Arabia is a country 
of endless desert and blistering heat. Perhaps this is an 
exaggeration. The daytime temperature over most of the 
country is ferocious in summer and most of the country is 
desert. But from about November to February, the weather 
in the area is quite pleasant. In fact, in parts of the country, 
nights and early mornings can even become quite cold. 
Inland, in winter, the minimum temperature can drop 
below 0°C. 

Come Spend Your Next Holiday in Saudi Arabia 

An imaginary tourist brochure might advertise the charms of the 
Persian Gulf and Red Sea settlements in words such as these: 

spend winter in the country where the sun shines all day long. You 
can book a pleasant room in a seaside hotel, take a stroll along the 
esplanade in the warm winter sunshine, and breathe in the exciting 
flavours of the east. The sea is warm, calm, clear and inviting. The 
beaches are sandy. The temperature outside is just right. The fresh 
northern breezes blowing down the Gulf cool your skin. Shopping 
in the souqs of the crowded market place is exotic and tantalising. 
Gold is cheap. Myrrh and frankincense are available in gallon jars. 
You can buy shimmering fabrics, elaborate coffee pots and the most 
fantastic range of jewellery. Down the road, the minarets glint in the 
early morning sunshine. Out on the peaceful waters of the Arabian 
Gulf, you can take a trip on an authentic Arabian dhow, just the way 
it was when these ships used to sail to the East to return with the 
fabled products of the Indies... 

What a place for a holiday!' 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 151 

It has to be said, few tourists are tempted by this splendid 
vista of mild winter weather and sparkling blue waters for 
the very good reason that visas are not offered to tourists 
except under most exceptional circumstances. Other than 
for pilgrims and the most intrepid adventurers, Saudi Arabia 
has yet to make a significant impact on the tourist map. But 
for guest workers, the pleasant winter conditions are there 
to be enjoyed, hot summer weather notwithstanding. 

While the country is generally arid, it does rain occasionally. 
Riyadh, the capital, averages 81 mm (about 3 inches) annual 
rainfall. Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast averages 50 mm (about 
2 inches). What rain there is falls as brief winter downpours 
that disappear rapidly into the thirsty sands which, a few 
days later, may display a tinge of green. Life in the desert is 
nothing if not tenacious. 

In paved areas, storm drainage systems range from 
inadequate to non-existent. Many buildings have been built 
below street level. For a day or so, passing clouds that stray 
from their normal flight paths can turn arid Arabian towns 
into quagmires. After a cloudburst, traders patiently bail out 
their stores and wait for normal weather conditions to return. 
So before setting off for Saudi Arabia, don't forget to pack 
your umbrella! This item is not readily available within the 
kingdom for the few days when it is needed. 

For visitors from more temperate climes, the sight of rain 
may be a reminder of an event they never thought they'd 
miss. The noonday sun is not the only climatic phenomenon 
into which mad dogs and Englishmen venture. English expats 
working in Saudi Arabia to escape from the weather back 
home have been known to immerse themselves into these 
brief and occasional storms, to perform a dance of gratitude 
to the rain god. 

The other distinctive climate feature in Saudi Arabia is 
wind. The prevailing wind, the north-westerly shammal, rises 
in the mountains of Turkey and blows down the axis of the 
Arabian Peninsula. A less frequent wind, the qaw, sometimes 
blows with equal force from the opposite direction. When 
winds blowing across deserts reach a certain strength, they 
start to pick up sand. Shammal has become Saudi Arabia's 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 153 

generic term for a full on sandstorm, from whichever 
direction it blows. 

Walking around in a shammal in daylight hours is an 
eerie experience. Your world is suddenly reduced to 
monochromatic orange. No features are visible. The sun is 
blotted out and complete disorientation is but a step away 
but for one thing— you can navigate by the direction of the 
wind. Shammals can last for periods ranging from a few hours 
to days. Millions of tonnes of desert migrate this way and 
that in a swirling sand curtain that may extend one hundred 
feet into the air. Sand settles everywhere and anywhere. It 
gets into your house through the smallest crack. Possessions 
inside and outside buildings get covered with a fine grit. If the 
winds are high, painted objects like cars may be sandblasted 
back to bare metal. In coping with shammals, the ancient 
rule of the Bedouins still applies: during a shammal, rug up 
and stay inside. 


At certain times of the year, figuring out the date may be a 
little more difficult in Saudi Arabia than in other places. The 
basic units of time— the second, the hour, the day and the 
seven-day week— originated thousands of years ago by the 
early Sumerians, are the same in the kingdom as they are 
elsewhere. To measure the span of its years, Saudi Arabia 
has adopted the Islamic lunar calendar with a starting date in 
ad 622, the year the Prophet Muhammad fled Mecca for Medina, 
an event known as the Hejira. Islamic years are denoted as 
'ah' or Anno Hejira, just as 'ad' means 'Anno Domino', the 
Latin phrase meaning years since the birth of Christ. 

Based on the lunar cycle of the moon's orbit of 29.53 
days, the Islamic calendar alternates 29- and 30-day months. 
The Islamic year has 354.36 days— the time taken by the 
moon to make 1 2 earthly revolutions. The fractional day is 
accommodated with a leap year of 355 days at three-year 
intervals to synchronise the orbital period of the moon with 
the rotational period of the earth. Further, finer adjustments 
to align the third and fourth decimal points of the lunar and 
solar orbits are made at longer periods. This is similar to the 

154 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

one-day adjustment made to the Gregorian calendar every 
400 years. 

Because the Islamic year is shorter than the Gregorian 
year, Islamic months occur either ten or 11 days earlier in the 
solar year than they were the year before. The entire cycle 
of days between the two calendars takes about 32.5 solar 
years (33.5 lunar years) to complete. 

Another effect of the shorter lunar year is that the gap 
between the two calendars is narrowing. The year 2003 on 
the Gregorian calendar was the year 1424 on the Muslim 
calendar (or most of it was!). The original difference between 
the two calendar years has narrowed from 622 at the start 
to 579 at present. The gap will continue to close. Years 
showing on the two calendars will momentarily coincide on 
the first day of May in the year ad 20,874 which will also be 
the first day of the fifth month (Jumada al-awwal) of the year 
20,874 ah on the Islamic calendar. After that, the Islamic 
calendar will show more years than the Gregorian. Or perhaps 
by then, both calendars will have ceased to exist. 

For those who need to know what day it is, Saudi Arabian 
timekeeping has an additional complication. In line with 
ancient practices, the official start of the new month is 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 155 

determined by the sighting of the new moon rather than 
by the number of days that have elapsed since the month 
started. For a new month to start, the crescent sliver has to 
be observed not merely by some ordinary mortal but the 
particular mullah in a particular observatory. 

Sighting the New Moon 

Until the official eye has observed the new moon and broadcast this 
news to the community, no new month can start. Words from the 
website of Dr Monzur describe the drawbacks of this method: 
'Islamic months begin at sunset on the day of visual sighting of the 
lunar crescent. Even though visual sighting is necessary to determine 
the start of a month, it is useful to accurately predict when a crescent 
is likely to be visible in order to produce lunar calendars in advance. 
Although it is possible to calculate the position of the moon in the 
sky with high precision, it is often difficult to predict if a crescent 
will be visible from a particular location. Visibility depends on a 
large number of factors including weather conditions, the altitude of 
the moon at sunset, the closeness of the moon to the sun at sunset, 
the interval between sunset and moonset, atmospheric pollution, 
the quality of the eyesight of the observer, use of optical aids etc. 
Since ancient times, many civilisations and astronomers have tried 
to predict the likelihood of visualising the new moon using different 
'minimum visibility criteria'. However, all these criteria are subject 
to varying degrees of uncertainty.' 

As official literature on the subject describes, the new 
month may not begin on time for a hundred different 
reasons: the skies above the official astronomer may be 
cloudy, the telescope could be out of action, the official 
astronomer may have mislaid his glasses, and so on. 
Months may start a day or two behind schedule, which can 
play havoc with schedules of all sorts. 

The problem is felt most acutely during Ramadan, the 
month everyone wants to end at the earliest possible moment. 
Without the official observation from the official observer, 
Ramadan continues, and Eid-el-Fitr— the holidays of feasting- 
cannot begin. This unpredictability of the religious culture 
plays its minor havoc in the modern world, particularly at 
airports. Though airports operate on the Gregorian calendar, 
support services may not. Day one of Eid-el-Fitr is not a good 
date to plan your exit from the country. 

156 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

The Islamic Calendar 

The 1 2 lunar month Muslim calendar runs as follows. 

First Month 


Second Month 


Third Month 

Rabi'al-awwal (Rabi' I) 

Fourth Month 

Rabi'al thani (RabiTI) 

Fifth Month 

Jumada al-awwal (Jumada I) 

Sixth Month 

Jumada al-thani (Jumada II) 

Seventh Month 


Eighth Month 


Ninth Month 


Tenth Month 


Eleventh Month 

Dhu al-Qi'dah 

Twelfth Month 

Dhu al-Hijjah 


All but one of the holidays in Saudi Arabia are observed on 
specific days of the Muslim calendar. The exception is Saudi 
National Day which is observed on a specific day of the 
Gregorian calendar (23 September). 

Public Holidays in Saudi Arabia 

1 Muharran 

Islamic New Year (First day of Muslim 


12 Rab'al-awal 

Birthday of Prophet Muhammad 

1 Shawwal 

Eid-el Fitr (Feasting at end of Ramadan) 

Variable date 

Jenadriyah National Festival (Festival lasts 

about ten days and celebrates the founding of 

Saudi Arabia by King Ibn Saud) 

23 September 

Saudi National Day 

19 Dhu Al'Hijjah 

Eid al-Adah (Feasting day celebrating the 

pilgrimage to Mecca and the sacrifice by 

Abraham of his son) 

Since the Islamic calendar is based on the 354/355-day 
year, from one year to the next, on the Gregorian calendar 
each of these holidays (except Saudi National Day) is 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 157 

either ten or 11 days earlier than the year before on the 
Gregorian calendar. 


The austerity of the Arabian Peninsula contrasts with the 
splendours that history supplied on the other side of the 
Red Sea. Despite Egypt's proximity, no one built pyramids 
in Arabia. Nothing was built to compare with the Hanging 
Gardens of Babylon just over the northern border. With no 
administrative focal point in the region and little permanent 
agriculture, the nomads of Arabia lived on the move, leaving 
only limited physical evidence on the landscape to mark their 
passage. Nevertheless, with the antiquity of its civilisation and 
the incessant travelling of the Bedouin, pottery remnants are 
commonplace across the desert sands. A fossicking trip into 
the desert often yields something of historical interest. 

Likewise the conquerors of the Arabian Peninsula who 
came and went left behind them only a few physical 
structures. Of the foreign invaders, the Turks established 
permanent footholds that have lasted through to the present 
day. The low forts and houses they built had thick walls and 
slits for windows to deal with the heat. On both coastlines, 
coral was the principal building material and usually coated 
with a hard lime plaster. Further inland, mud brick buildings 
are found in the central Nejd Plateau. Buildings up in the 
mountainous regions, where rainfall is higher, are built with 
stone plastered over with mud or lime. Only a few major 
stone buildings, of which the Grand Mosque of Mecca and 
the Prophet's Mosque in Medina are the standout examples, 
bear testament to the splendours of Arabia's finest hour— the 
Islamic empire of the Middle Ages. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, only a few trading 
posts dotted the gulf coastline. Jeddah, Mecca and Medina 
were the settlements of the west. Riyadh was an oasis 
township surrounded by low mud brick walls. 

Most of the infrastructure of Saudi Arabia has been built 
in the last 50 years. With the globalisation of architectural 
standards, the downtown parts of Saudi cities— made up of 
high-rise buildings— may remind you of any place you have 

158 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

The past and the present. The remnant mud-dwellings (left) in the city of 
Di'iyyah, the first Saudi capital is a far cry from the modern architecture 
(right) that can now be seen in the kingdom's current capital of Riyadh. 

ever been. Yet, architectural design elements that are distinctly 
eastern convey an Arabic flavour that reminds you where 
you really are. Saudi Arabia has some spectacularly graceful 
buildings combining spires, minarets, domes, and highly 
decorated arches that are all unmistakeably Arabic. Stylised 
arabesque calligraphy and intricate geometric carvings are 
worked onto external surfaces. Domes in striking blue, green, 
yellow or gold make interesting features. Ochre renderings 
in red mixed with brown and white complement the austere 
desert surroundings and soften the harsh desert light. 

Amongst buildings worth seeing in Saudi Arabia are 
the King Khaled International Airport and the Ministry 
of the Interior building in Riyadh, and the Humane 
Heritage Museum in Jeddah. Various mosques built along 
traditional lines, with minarets and slender towers, are 
also lovely buildings. The finest mosque of all— the Grand 
Mosque of Mecca— is unfortunately off limits to all but 
card-carrying Muslims. 


The country is not known for its antiquities since so few 
permanent structures were built. The largely nomadic 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 159 

ancestors didn't leave a lot of physical remains behind to 
mark their passage through life. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia 
does have a few museums of good standard. Principal among 
them is the Riyadh Museum in the Department of Antiquities 
office. Displays at the Riyadh Museum are the history and 
archaeology of the Arabian Peninsula from the beginnings of 
settlement through to the golden age of Islam. Jeddah also 
has a couple of museums worth visiting if you are in the 
area — the Municipality Museum and the Museum of Abdul 
Raouf Hasan Khalil. The former is in a restored traditional 
house and is the only surviving building of the early 20th 
century British Legation in Jeddah. (In 1917, T E Lawrence, 
aka Lawrence of Arabia stayed at the Legation.) The Museum 
of Abdul Raouf Hassan Khalil is a private museum and has 
over 10,000 items displayed in four houses. 


Sometime in the 8th century, paper made its way from China 
to Baghdad and from there to the rest of Arabia. A paper 
mill was built in Baghdad around this time. Later, the Arabs 
introduced paper to Europe, trading it for scarce metals. In the 
holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the printing and publishing 
of the Qur'an and other religious and philosophical books 
were important industries that serviced the period when 
the Arab dominions led the world in science, mathematics, 
astronomy and medicine. 

The Mongol conquest in the 13th century started the 
decline of Arab literature. Later during the Ottoman conquest, 
Arab literature took flight in Egypt and Lebanon. Reverting 
to its Bedouin ways, Saudi Arabia lost its culture of literacy. 
Nomadic Bedouins travelled light, relying on oral traditions 
of storytellers reciting tales. Paper did not return into Saudi 
Arabia in significant quantities until the 20th century. 
Though the kingdom is not noted for an enormous volume 
of literature, arguably its best known pulication, the Qur'an, 
is the most influential book of all time. Outside Medina, the 
government runs a giant press printing around 10 million 
Qur'ans each year in 40 languages. The books are distributed 
free throughout the world. 

160 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

In recent times, novelists writing about life inside 
contemporary Saudi Arabia are bound by the same strictures 
as the rest of society. Saudi Arabia is not a country where 
critics of the system fare well. In the case of popular Saudi 
novelist Abdelrahman Munif, not only was his Cities of Salt 
trilogy banned for being critical of the House of Saud, but the 
author was stripped of his Saudi nationality as well! 

Like literature, other outlets for artistic expression are also 
controlled. In a country run by clerics, it probably comes as 
no surprise that the clergy determines the rules of painting. 
Once more the Qur'an has something to say on this subject. 
Images of real objects are not favoured. You will see no 
pictures of sweeping desert scenes hanging in Saudi houses. 
Saudi custom prohibits the painting of what are loosely 
described as naturally occurring objects— people, animals, or 
scenery in general. Saudi art is restricted to calligraphy and its 
extensions, of which there are some fine examples. In Arabic, 
letters and geometrical shapes that look like letters weave 
intricate patterns that are unmistakably Middle Eastern. Saudi 
art with its geometrical patterns tends to resemble Eastern 
carpets and vice versa. Such art is liberally applied to many 
surfaces— plates, canvases, plaques, tiles, textiles, sculptures 
and wall hangings. 

The rules of the clerics also fashion the performing arts. 
It hardly needs to be said that female dance is prohibited 
in Saudi Arabia. The Royal Ballet never books Riyadh on its 
tours of the world. No performance of Hair is ever likely to 
be staged in the kingdom. However, performance of Saudi 
Arabia's traditional dance, the ardha, is allowed. This dance 
has military origins and features barefooted males clad in 
their normal street clothes of thobe and gutra jumping up 
and down mostly in one spot while wielding swords. Parents 
be warned! This is not a dance that should be performed by 
your own children in your own home. 

Music is not banned in the kingdom. On the other 
hand, no visiting rock band has been known to perform 
in Saudi Arabia. But the dictates of the Qur'an do allow 
some forms of traditional music to be performed. Arabian 
music is probably an acquired taste. The traditional musical 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 161 

Saudis making music with traditional instruments. 

instruments of Saudi Arabia are those of the Bedouin— the 
tambourine (rigg), drum and stringed instruments — the oud 
and the rebaba, which muster four strings between them. 
Another interesting traditional song and dance known as 
the al-mizmar is performed in Mecca, Medina and Jeddah. 
The dance features the music of the al-mizmar, a woodwind 
instrument bearing the same name as the dance and similar 
to the oboe. 


Since tourist facilities in Saudi Arabia are underdeveloped in 
most Saudi cities, finding your way to a building you have not 
visited before is not easy. Streets are poorly sign-posted if at 
all, and addresses are not well numbered. Street directories 
are non-existent for most places, though street maps may 
be available for the larger cities. Even if street maps are 
available, many of the minor streets and alleys will not be 
marked. Since street names are poorly marked and difficult 
to read with poor language skills, a common sort of direction 
from the person you are visiting is likely to be: "I live in such 
and such street opposite such and such a landmark." Before 
setting out on a journey you haven't made before, it's a good 
idea to make your own map if you can, including marking on 
it some prominent landmarks by which to navigate. 

162 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


Not all that many guest workers bother to go sightseeing 
when in Saudi Arabia. Many never journey further astray 
than the road between their compounds and the nearest 
airport. If they travel within the country at all, they usually 
do so by air. 

However, driving over the nation's highways is an entirely 
practical adventure. Saudi Arabia is a large country and 
sparsely populated between its major cities. Travel by car is 
swift. Motel-style accommodation is reasonably available. 
Failing that, more adventurous spirits can camp under the 
stars, which are spectacular away from the towns. 

The countryside has its own austere charm, but the 
normal precautions of desert travel apply. Don't stray far 
off major roads. Preferably, travel in convoys of at least 
two vehicles in case of accidents. Take spare parts such 
as fan belts, engine oil, petrol and water. In case you get 
stranded, take food rations plus plenty of drinking water. 
Take some warm clothes too— the desert airs can get chilly 
at night. And take plenty of documentation that will testify 
who you are. 

Except for off-limit religious areas like Mecca, you are 
free to travel wherever you wish, though you are meant to 
carry appropriate documentation. On your travels you should 
carry your Iqama plus a letter from you employer authorising 
your travel and authenticated by an immigration official or a 
Chamber of Commerce office. If driving, also carry a full set 
of insurance documents for yourself and your vehicle. 

Rules are always changing (and may do so while you 
are in transit!). People who want to travel should ascertain 
the appropriate travel documentation before commencing 
their journey. In theory at least, those who get caught 
without the appropriate paperwork and can't convince the 
arresting officer to take a lenient view, are liable to Saudi 
Arabia's customary punishment — imprisonment for an 
unspecified period. 

Once en route to your destination, you pass through 
countryside that holds few surprises. You are picked up from, 
say, King Fahd Airport in Damman in the Eastern Province. 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 163 

In the town itself, a few eucalypts — now the world's most 
ubiquitous tree — line the sidewalks. (Eucalypts seem to be 
the tree in general global use for areas in which no other 
tree will grow.) 

If you happen to be driving through the heat of the 
day, the light is intense. Passing out of town, you drive 
past rock formations that may well remind you of 
pictures beamed from the Sea of Tranquillity by Apollo 
astronauts: geologically interesting and quite appropriate 
as a moonscape; but for earthbound mortals, starkly 
austere. Further out of town, bare rock gives way to deserts 
of small dunes. The eastern side of the country is flat 
and monotonous. 

From Damman, you can head up the eastern highway 
north towards Kuwait, through Jubail and Ras'al Khafji. 
The other choices of highways from Dhahran are south 
through the oasis town of Al Hufuf towards the UAE, or 
west through Riyadh to the Red Sea coast. 

Roads in Saudi Arabia are elevated to prevent sand building 
up on the bitumen surface. The surface is high enough that 
the sand is blown across the road instead of being deposited. 
Incidentally, driving through a sandstorm is not advised. Not 
only is visibility reduced to near zero, but the wind-driven 
sand can eat up your paintwork very rapidly. 

Whichever way you are travelling, the initial scenery is 
similar. In the first part of the journey, the road passes through 
the coastal plain, low dunes that are flat and featureless. 
The black road snakes ahead over a pale orange landscape. 
Perhaps you will see an occasional palm tree or perhaps the 
low dunes may sport sparse tufts of marram grass. Here and 
there amongst dunes, the flared gas of an oil well shoots a 
tongue of red flame and a contrail of dirty gas into the sky. 
But mostly the vista is endless sand in various shades of 
yellow, orange and red. 

The most interesting landscapes as well as the major 
historical icons are to be found in the western half of the 
country, in particular the south-west. As you head west, 
the country the landscape crinkles into the ranges that run 
along the western seaboard. Towards the Yemen border, the 

164 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

road winds through high hills and relatively fertile valleys 
atypical of the rest of the country. To the north, the highway 
heads up to the Jordan border, sometimes through rolling arid 
countryside, sometimes along the coastal plain. 

Places of Interest 

Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia with a population of 
nearly 5 million. Riyadh took over from Jeddah as Saudi 
Arabia's most important and largest city in the 1 970s. The city 
is a stronghold of religious zeal. Wahhabism had its origins in 
this area. The Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and 
for the Prevention of Vice, The Ministry of Religious Affairs 
and the Mutawa'een have their headquarters here. 

The city sits in a basin surrounded by barren mountain 
ranges. It is sited on one of Saudi Arabia's largest oases formed 
at the confluence of three underground rivers, called wadis. 
In past eras, desert travellers sought Riyadh as a welcome 
staging post of trees, gardens and parks in the centre of a vast 
desert. Desert travellers could trade their wares for dates and 
other fruit from Riyadh's ample gardens. Today, the city is 
still known for its greenery, though not enough underground 
water is now available to sustain either its population or its 
vegetation. Riyadh is supplied by desalinated water piped 
from Jubail, 400 km (290 miles) to the east, through one of 
the world's largest water pipeline systems. 

One hundred years ago, Riyadh— surrounded by low 
sandstone walls— was a city small enough to be conquered 
by King Ibn Saud and his 40 stalwarts armed with the best in 
breech-loading rifles the British arsenal could supply. Today, 
remnants of the old city walls remain as a tourist attraction. 
But the modern city has sprawled well beyond its original 
boundaries. It is a modern city, having been substantially built 
from the 1 960s. From an oasis in the more traditional sense, 
Riyadh has become an oasis of high-rise. The infrastructure 
and standard of accommodation and facilities is good. Being 
near the centre of the Arabian Desert, the city is hot in 
summer and subject to a wide temperature range between 
day and night. 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 165 


Jeddah (alternatively spelt asjiddah) is the commercial capital 
of Saudi Arabia and the country's second largest city with 
a population of over 2.8 million. Jeddah is the kingdom's 
major seaport and dates from pre-Islamic times as a fishing 
settlement which later became a transit point for the spice 
trade and a gateway to Mecca. During the centuries of 
occupation by the Ottoman Turks, Jeddah became a fortified 
walled town. Fragments of the original city remain, though 
20th century developers have demolished most of the 
historical structures as a source of building materials. 

Jeddah's most famous landmark is the floodlit corniche 
that separates the main commercial area from the Red Sea 
coast. The city also features what is claimed to be the world's 
tallest fountain and some bizarre sculptures that are worth 
seeing including a giant steel fist mounted on a granite block, 
a penny farthing bicycle as high as a four-storey building and 
crashed Cadillacs sticking out of a three-storey high building 
and featuring tail lights that illuminate at night. 

As Saudi Arabia's most cosmopolitan city, trade through 
Jeddah has, to a degree, eroded the religious strictures of 
Saudi Arabian theocracy. Jeddah is about as free and easy 
as it gets in Saudi Arabia. 


Taif, Saudi Arabia's 'summer capital' is located in the Hijaz 
Mountains, a spectacular two-hour drive from Jeddah. 
Standing at about 2,000 metres (6,000 ft) elevation, Taif 
has a pleasant year-round climate with mild summers 
(25-30°C / 64-90°F) and cool winters that sometimes get 
below freezing. The normal population of Taif is around 
400,000. Population doubles during summer with an influx 
of vacationers escaping the heat elsewhere in the country. 
Taif is a typical Saudi Arabian city of contrasting old and 
new. Glass-clad modern buildings, several stories high, rise 
cheek by jowl with the old mud plastered stone structures 
with wooden louvred windows and carved wooden doors. 
The city is located in the high rainfall area of Saudi Arabia 
(around 400 mm or 16 inches annual precipitation). As 

166 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

a result, the surrounding countryside is less barren and 
supports agriculture, in particular vegetable gardens. The 
traditional Bedouin souqs are well known amongst collectors 
of Bedouin wares such as pottery, jewellery and carpets. 


Mecca, Islam's holy city with a population of 1.5 million, 
is a jumble of high-rise buildings. Fast growth in religious 

tourism from overseas pilgrims 
who can afford airfares into 
Saudi Arabia has propelled land 
prices in Mecca to amongst the 
highest in the world. 

Mecca is the major tourist 
attraction to the Muslims allowed 
to go there. In developing Mecca, 
the Saudi municipal authorities 
have not been particularly fussy 
about preserving their antiquities. 
On the hill of Ajyad district, an 
18th century Ottoman Fort- 
built as a defence against Wahab 
maurauders— has been demolished to make way for seven 
apartment towers, six huge hotels and a four-storey shopping 
centre. In the Mount of Omar District, developers plan to clear 
many of the old buildings and build 120 residential towers, 
each 20 stories high and able to accommodate a total of 
100,000 people. A further five massive development projects, 
if completed, will add 50 per cent capacity to Mecca's housing 
market. Facing the gate of the Grand Mosque, Saudi bin 
Laden is building a mammoth complex of skyscrapers for 
the Al Saud family. 


Medina, with a population of around one million, is Saudi 
Arabia's other holy city. Situated about 400 km (250 miles) 
north of Mecca, Medina is the city to which the Prophet 
Muhammad retreated after he was persecuted by the 
establishment at Mecca, and which later became his burial 

The Price of Holy Land 

Saudi Arabian cities experienced 
an extraordinary boom of 
property prices during the oil 
price rise between 2003 and 
2008. Nowhere more so than 
Mecca, where land values at 
choice sites close to the Grand 
Mosque reached an extraordinary 
US$ 1 06,700 per sq metre at the 
peak of the boom— perhaps the 
most expensive real estate in the 
world and rivalling land prices in 
Tokyo in the early 1990s. 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 167 

place. For that reason, it is an important destination for 
religious tourists. The city is situated on a plateau, about 
700 metres (2,300 feet) in elevation, in the low mountain 
range that runs along the western seaboard of the country. 
Medina's most important building is the Prophet's Mosque. 
South of Medina and worth a visit for historical interest 
are the plains of Badr, the battlefield where Muhammad 
fought his most successful campaign against the army of his 
Meccan enemies. 


Dammam and Al Khobar are separate townships that have 
joined at the edges. The third adjacent town, Dhahran— the 
site of the first of the country's oilfields— was built mostly by 
Aramco as accommodation for the oil workers who developed 
the oil installations on the country's Eastern Province. 
Dammam, Al Khobar and, to a lesser extent, Dhahran can 
be regarded as a single settlement. The cities, built on the 
Persian Gulf shore, have a long history as trading posts. They 
are an interesting mixture of the old and the new, with souqs 
and crumbling mud-brick structures giving way to shopping 
malls and high-rise. 


Most hotels in Saudi Arabia are in the mid to expensive range. 
Hotels in Riyadh are usually slightly less expensive than 
those found in many major European cities. Budget hotels 
can also be found in Saudi Arabia but, generally speaking, 
the bottom end of the hotel market is not well served. 
This is not a country to which backpackers flock in 
droves. The best information to be had for the low end of 
the market is to be found in publications like the Lonely 
Planet series. Hotel information for those making hajj and 
umrah pilgrimages may be obtained from tour operators 
specialising in this business or at websites such as For more general information 
on all classes of hotel accommodation, try: 



168 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

By the time Saudi Arabia got around to developing its 
infrastructure, air travel was well established over most of 
the planet. Having made the great leap forward from the 
10th century to the 20th century in a single bound, and 
jumping right over the 19th century in the process, Saudi 
Arabia never got around to developing a rail system of any 
consequence. Instead, they built roads and airports. 

The total length of rail in the country is less than 
2,000 km. The major railway line is that between Riyadh 
and Dammam which is used almost exclusively for freight. 
But that could change in years to come if the government 
carries through its rail development plan by building new 
lines. On the drawing board is a cross-country rail network 
with links between Riyadh andjeddah (945 km or 587 miles); 
Dammam andjubail (115 km or 71 miles); Riyadh and the 
Hudaitha border post with Jordan (610 km or 379 miles); and 
Mecca and Medina (425 km or 264 miles). 

A site of interest for Lawrence of Arabia enthusiasts is the 
Hijaz railway built by the Ottomans that connected Damascus 
in Syria to Medina. Lawrence and his troop of Bedouins 
blew it up during World War I on the Jordanian side of the 
border. The event was famously depicted in the 1 962 movie, 
Lawrence of Arabia. Remnants of the railway, opened in 1901 
and shut down in 1915, are still visible on the Saudi side. 


According the CIA website (which provides the most easily 
accessible statistical thumbnail sketches of the countries of 
the world), in the year 2008, Saudi Arabia had 213 airports, 
including military airports. Of these, three are international 
airports, located at Riyadh, Damman andjeddah. 

The national airline of Saudi Arabia is Saudi Arabian 
Airlines (Saudia), operates both domestic and international 
services. In its earlier days, Saudia earned a reputation for 
eccentricity within the industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, it 
suffered a rash of minor but newsworthy accidents. Stories, 
possibly apocryphal, circulated of travelling Bedouins 
attempting to barbecue their own meals in the aisles while 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 169 

the planes were airborne and pilots taking their hands off the 
controls during electrical storms and leaving things to fate. 
Since those days, the safety statistics of Saudia have been 
excellent. The airline has earned itself a Rating 1 on the US 
Federal Airports Authority's safety assessment programme. 

Local Rules on Flying 

Saudia still maintains its reputation as an anachronistic airline. 
No alcohol is served on Saudia flights, either within Saudi Arabian 
airspace or internationally. During the daylight hours of Ramadan, 
packaged food is handed out, but cannot be eaten. The cabin crew 
advises passengers to take the food off the plane and eat it after dark. 
In addition to the normal pre-take off safety features announcements, 
after the safety features are identified and prior to take-off, a video 
is screened offering prayers for a safe trip. The policy seems to be 
working. No planes have crashed in recent times. 

Air travel within the country on Saudia is configured for 
business passengers rather than the economy class tourist 
industry that is more common in other parts of the world. 
Other than conveying Muslims to their religious destinations, 
demand for tourism class airflight within Saudi Arabia is 
limited. Flying around Saudi Arabia by Saudia is considered 
expensive by international standards. According to one 
account, one reason for this is that minor Saudi princes have 
developed a practice of flying liberally within the kingdom, 
displaying their Royal credentials to booking staff, rather 
than buying a ticket. The revenue shortfall from this act of 
royal self-indulgence is recovered as a 'royalty' levy from less 
distinguished passengers. This is supposed to be one reason 
for the higher ticket prices. 


The principal industry in Saudi Arabia is oil. A trivial pursuit 
question guaranteed to stump all but the most inveterate 
Middle Eastern buffs is the identity of the country's second 
biggest industry. 

The answer is — tourism. 

One hundred years ago, Saudi Arabia was among the 
least visited countries on the planet. Apart from the Turkish 

170 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

conquerors in residence at the time, there was only one strong 
reason for anyone to visit this featureless piece of desert roamed 
by some of the world's poorest people. That was the annual 
pilgrimage to Islam's holy shrine of Mecca during the last month 
on the Muslim calendar — the month of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last 
month of the Islamic calendar and the month from which the 
hajj gets its name. One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj, 
stipulates that believers, both local and from foreign lands should 
participate in this once-in-a-lifetime voyage. Non-Muslims, in 
contrast, are banned from Mecca on pain of death. 

The Hajj Business 

In recent years, businesses associated with the hajj pilgrimage have 
become the fastest growing sector of the economy, employing four 
times as many employees as the oil industry The number of religious 
tourists topped nine million in 2007, resulting in the number of visas for 
hajj visits being restricted due to infrastructural restraints (overcrowding 
at religious sites and availability of accommodation). Since Islam is 
now a global phenomenon, and with the easy availability of air travel, 
the yearly influx of pilgrims has expanded past anything that could 
have been envisaged by Islam's founder. With outgoing Saudi tourists 
taking less extensive and expensive trips outside the kingdom, tourism 
became a net positive industry on Saudi Arabia's national balance sheet 
in 2002. By 2007, net tourism (money spent by incoming tourism 
less outgoing tourism) was generating an annual US$ 6 billion for the 
country, and Saudi tourism generating 738,000 jobs, or 8.6 per cent 
of all employment within Saudi Arabia. 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 171 

Like many of its ideas, Islam adopted the hajj from older 
religions. Pilgrimage to Mecca is an ancient rite and long a 
mainstay of the Meccan economy, extending well into pre-Islam 
days. The star attraction then (as it is today) was Islam's most 
sacred icon, the Hajar ul Aswad, the black stone of Mecca. 

A hajj pilgrimage is quite unlike most people's idea of 
a holiday. Each pilgrim must perform a series of most 
intricate rituals performed in strict chronological order, and 
at certain days of the holy month. Pilgrimage is hot, tiring 
and hazardous work. Mandatory pilgrim activities include 
hours of walking, a great deal of praying, much queuing and 
incessant crowds. 

Pilgrims are required to perform a number of rituals during 
the hajj, largely symbolic of Abraham's journey in the desert. 
Pilgrims must cut their hair at the appropriate time and to 
the appropriate length. They must throw pebbles at the 
Jamrah — three stone pillars — a certain number in the correct 
order and at particular times. (The stone pillars are meant to 
be symbols of evil. Bombarding them with pebbles is thought 
to purge the stone thrower of whatever evil resides in the 
pilgrim's soul). Pilgrims must also touch the sacred Hajar ul 
Aswad and walk around its containing structure, the Ka'bah, a 
prescribed number of times in certain directions. Live animals 
must be sacrificed according to methods specified by the 
Prophet. (Saudi Arabia imports six million live sheep each 
year to be slaughtered at Mecca for this purpose.) Between 
these activities is interposed a great deal of praying. The 
entire process takes up to two weeks, with the result that 
Mecca gets pretty crowded during the pilgrim season. 

Throughout history, merchants around Mecca have 
made a living from the once-yearly influx of tourists. Local 
commercial tradition seems to demand that pilgrims are 
fleeced in one way or another while on their pilgrimages. 
Non-Arab pilgrims from countries like Pakistan, Malaysia or 
Indonesia — foreigners who are unfamiliar with local customs 
and prices— are particularly targeted since they can be 
overcharged with little resistance. More indirect means are 
also applied to relieving pilgrims of their money and their 
possessions. One of the requirements of the pilgrimage is 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 173 

that pilgrims must leave their possessions behind in a camp 
somewhere on making the final leg into the Grand Mosque. 
This is an opportunity for pilfering (though the more savvy 
pilgrims discretely wear money belts around their bodies). 

As well as that, during a pilgrimage, the pilgrim faces a 
number of physical hazards to life and limb. For example, the 
pillars of evil, the Jamrah, are contained in a pit surrounded 
by a low stone wall that can be approached, and stoned, 
from all points of compass. On occasions, poor aim and over- 
zealous throwing have taken out a number of fellow pilgrims 
standing on the opposite side of the pit. Another risk is being 
crushed by crowds of excited individuals pressing forward 
against the circular wall in which the Jamrah resides. Over 
the years, large numbers of pilgrims have been crushed or 
stoned at this site with fatal results. 

The gathering of tribes with historical enmities also raises 
tensions. Pilgrims from within Arabia itself may come from 
other tribes with whom the natives of Hijaz are traditionally 
not on speaking terms. Shi'ite pilgrims from countries like 
Iran are denounced as heretics by the extreme elements 
of Saudi clergy. Many Shi'ites have been officially executed 
over the years as a result of their pilgrimages, and others 
have been killed more casually. In 1991, the Saudi papers 
quoted Abdallah bin Jibreen, King Fahd's appointment in 
clerical ideology, describing Shia believers as 'idolaters who 
deserve to be killed'. In making their pilgrimages, Shi'ites are 
venturing into enemy territory. 

Open warfare had broken out on occasions. In November 
1979, after the Shia inspired revolution in Iran, a force 
of about 300 Wahhabi fanatics led by religious activist, 
Juhayman Otteibi stormed the Grand Mosque of Mecca 
in a bid to overthrow the Saudi Royal Family and start an 
Islamic revolution. The dissidents charged that corruption 
and close ties to the West had cost the Al Saud regime its 
legitimacy to govern. The fanatics held the mosque for ten 
days despite attempts by the Saudi military to recapture it. 
The situation was becoming internationally embarrassing and 
the Saudis called in overseas support. French paratroopers 
regained control, first by flooding the Grand Mosque, then 

174 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

by electrifying the water. More than 100 fanatics and 127 
Saudi police died in a shoot-out. Surviving dissidents and 
suspected dissidents were later publicly beheaded throughout 
the cities and towns of Saudi Arabia. For the benefit of those 
unable to attend these beheadings in person, executions were 
broadcast live on Saudi TV. 

In July 1987 Iranian Shi'ite pilgrims to Mecca clashed 
with Saudi police and the casualty list from the engagement 
numbered 400 killed with many more injured. After a further 
riot of Shia pilgrims in 1 989, Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic 
relations with Iran. 

Some pilgrims to Mecca escaped death at the hand of man 
only to succumb to the hand of God. In 1 990, a tunnel packed 
with pilgrims collapsed resulting in a total death toll of around 
1,400. A further 270 pilgrims died in 1994, crushed in an 
accidental stampede. In 1997, about 340 Muslim pilgrims 
were burned to death when their campsite near Mecca caught 
fire. Two more stampedes during the stoning ritual in 1998 
and 2001 saw a further 1 50 pilgrims killed. 

In view of the recurring high casualty rate, Muslims from 
countries outside Saudi Arabia have queried whether Saudi 
Arabia has the infrastructure and organisational skills to host 
the annual influx of pilgrims. But the pilgrimages continue. 
Despite the hazards, the number of pilgrims increases 
each year. Some travel agents in Islamic countries outside 
the kingdom specialise in hajj tourism. Kuala Lumpur, for 
example, has a multi-storey building dedicated to arranging 
hajj tours for its pilgrims. Travel agents offer their Muslim 
clients a full 14-day Mecca/Medina experience, including 
detailed guides on how to discharge their hajj obligations. 
Package tours offer the obligatory rituals at Mecca along with 
side trips, such as visiting Muhammad's tomb at Medina. 
Guided tours take the pilgrims to the various religious sites 
at the appropriate times. 

With the hajj now a major industry involving millions 
of customers, far more people arrive to perform their 
hajj obligations than the holy icons at Mecca can easily 
accommodate. Given the overwhelming demand for the 
hajj from rapidly expanding Muslim populations across the 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 175 

globe, the intricate rituals that pilgrims undertake at various 
sacred icons have become bottlenecks. Management studies 
have been conducted to investigate ways of speeding up 
pilgrim throughput. Saudi authorities have encouraged 
religious scholars to be more flexible in interpreting pilgrims' 
religious obligations. 

One obvious measure that could be taken is to extend the 
pilgrim season. The basis for this idea is the umrah, which is 
a simplified version of the hajj. While the umrah incorporates 
many of the elements of the hajj, it is not accepted as the 
full substitute. But the umrah has great advantage over 
the hajj that it can be performed during the entire year. 
According to The Economist, umrah travel is now growing at 
10 per cent annually with three-quarters of a million umrah 
pilgrims coming from Egypt to visit the holy cities of Mecca 
and Medina. 

To expand facilities for pilgrims and ease the burdens 
of pilgrimage, the Saudi government has spent more than 
US$ 35 billion since the mid- 1 960s in improving infrastructure 
at Mecca. Despite these improvements the government 
has been forced to restrict the number of tourist visas it 
issues. Each Muslim nation has a quota of about one hajj 
visa for every 1 ,000 Muslim citizens, meaning that during 
the course of their lives, Muslims have only a 4 per cent 
chance of fulfilling one of the pillars of their faith. Despite 
the difficulties, the risks and the costs, the demand for 
pilgrimages exceeds the availability of visas. Not only is 
the hajj one of the five pillars of faith, becoming a hajji, the 
term for a pilgrim who has successfully performed the hajj 
obligation, is also a badge of honour. 

Non-pilgrim Travel 

While demand for Muslim pilgrimage has reached saturation 
point, the same cannot be said for inward tourism more 
generally. In fact, by making things difficult for its visitors, 
Saudi Arabia has ensured only the most dedicated non- 
Muslim tourists are likely to visit the kingdom. Entry 
qualifications are stringent. You need to find someone inside 
the kingdom to sponsor you. Your travel plans must be 

176 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

'approved'. Only approved destinations can be visited. Your 
travel will be chaperoned to some degree. The paper chase 
of visas and permissions prior to your trip will be exacting 
and laborious. But assuming success, you may then make 
an officially sanctioned trip to the kingdom, to be taken 
on an (expensive), controlled, but nonetheless interesting, 
'approved' tour. 


One of the great cultural contributions the USA has made 
to the world has been the invention of R&R (Rest and 
Recreation) leave. For Western expatriates, most employment 
contracts in Saudi Arabia will have an R&R component. 
Typically, two R&R leave entitlements of about 10-14 days 
are allowed each year, in addition to annual leave. Under 
most employment contracts, R&R must be taken outside 
Saudi Arabia. Within reasonable limits, the company gives 
you an air ticket to the destination of your choice. This is a 
terrific opportunity to see some interesting parts of the world 
at someone else's expense. 

Saudi Arabia happens to be very centrally situated to 
many attractive and interesting R&R destinations. It is also 
within range of places that make an intriguing weekend away. 
Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, the history-packed islands of the 
Mediterranean, Cyprus, Crete and Rhodes are all within easy 
reach. Most of South-east Asia, most of Africa, all of Europe, 
the other countries of the Middle East and Russia are within a 
chronological diameter of nine hours flying time. In terms of 
travelling to somewhere else, Saudi Arabia is central. Though 
North America is a little out of reach, non-stop flights are 
available to east coast cities. 

The easiest country of all to get to from Saudi Arabia is 
Bahrain, which is now connected to the kingdom at Dammam 
by a 25-km causeway. Taking a holiday in Bahrain may not 
sound all that exciting to some, but attractions are relative. 
Many on the east coast make the journey to partake of two 
of Saudi Arabia's forbidden fruits— pork and alcohol. 

But the Saudi immigration authorities have also heard of the 
availability of pork and alcohol in Bahrain. They are diligent 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 177 

in ensuring these prohibited items do not make the return 
journey across the causeway. At the checkpoint between 
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on the causeway connecting the 
two, immigration authorities customarily perform rigorous 
checks of all vehicles inbound into Saudi Arabia. Standard 
procedure is to use mirrors to check the underside of the car 
for packages bolted to the underside of the body pan. 

Such has been the influx of Saudis into Bahrain after the 
causeway was completed, and such has been the attendant 
collateral damage by single alcohol-impaired Saudi men, that 
for a while five-star hotels in Bahrain restricted its bookings 
to Saudi families only. The worst time to travel to Bahrain 
via the causeway is Thursday morning when long delays 
at the border crossing points can be expected from Saudi 
weekenders heading for their rest and relaxation activities 
in Bahrain. For the same reason, the return trip on Friday 
evening also tends to be congested. 

Paying Attention at the Border 

As in all things in the kingdom, a greater than normal level of care 
can keep you out of trouble. But lapses of concentration are human 
nature. A British sales executive of 'African and Eastern' (one of the 
three authorised distributors of alcoholic beverages in Bahrain) had 
a sideline business in soft drinks inside Saudi Arabia. To service 
this business, he would drive his own car across the causeway into 
Saudi Arabia. While in Bahrain, he customarily carried a sample of 
his company's products— a case of beer— in the boot of the car. One 
day, he travelled to the kingdom at short notice and forgot about 
his samples. At the border, Saudi immigration officials found the 
beer. The sales executive was first jailed, then fired from his job, and 
finally deported. 

Further down the coast from Bahrain, is the United Arab 
Emirates (UAE), a coalition of seven emirates, the main three 
of which are Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. By car or by 
taxi, any of the emirates is accessible from any of the others. 
Modern and progressive, the UAE, about a two-hour flight 
from east coast airports, is well worth a visit. As a base for 
a tour into the area, Sharjah or Dubai are probably the best 
places to stay. Both are very modern, attractive Arab-style 

178 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

For the guest worker and dependents, air travel around 
the Middle East on regional airlines may involve an extra 
degree of uncertainty. The fact that you hold a confirmed 
booking may not guarantee you a seat on the flight. If an 
Arab passenger decides at the last minute that he wants 
your seat on one of the Middle East airlines like Gulf Air or 
Saudia, the chances are he will get it. You may be 'bumped' 
off the flight, a practice that is not entirely unknown in 
other parts of the world, but particularly prevalent in 
the Middle East. 

One of the authors has had a personal experience 
at being bumped off a flight from Bahrain to Cyprus 
and, as a result, enduring a near-death experience from 
freezing in Bahrain's extravagantly air-conditioned 
airport during a 24-hour wait for a ticket out on the next 
available flight. Expatriates tend to be bumped off flights 
in the reverse order of the Middle East racial hierarchy. 
Those with the least status, Asian and sub-continent 
nationals from Third World countries, will find themselves 
'bumped' ahead of Westerners. On one Kuwait Air flight 
taken by one of the authors, the flight crew read out 
the names of four Filipinos who were asked to identify 
themselves as the flight, which had already been loaded, 
awaited to take off. Everyone knew what was going on. 
Not a soul admitted to their identities, but the individuals 
were identified from the passenger manifest, extracted 
from their seats and bundled off the plane to be replaced 
by four Arabs. Filipinos stick together. After the extraction 
was completed, the atmosphere in the plane crackled with 
resentment. A near riot broke out when the plane landed 
in Dubai, its next stop. 


Saudis are sensitive about photo taking. If you do take 
photos, you may also be taking a risk. People, including 
one of the photographers for this book, have been thrown 
into jail for snapping pictures without holding the proper 
permits. Others have been jailed and held overnight just 
for carrying a camera. Yet others have taken all the photos 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 179 

they wanted and nothing happened. The law of the land is 
this: photo taking without a permit is against the rules and 
the source of permits that allow photos to be taken is not 
entirely clear. The only photo taking that is entirely legal is 
within someone's home. 

Some of the photo subjects that would cause particular 
offence are obvious enough. Saudi Arabia is sensitive to its 
strategic position in the world. You would not be well advised, 
for example, to photograph military facilities. Taking photos 
of potential industrial targets such as oil refineries and port 
facilities will not be well regarded. Religious icons are off 
limits too— Saudis are sensitive about their religious beliefs. 
Whatever might be interpreted as showing the country in a 
bad light are risky photographic subjects. Snapping of abaya- 
clad women in the street is not recommended. Saudis know 
that the outside world views their treatment of women as 
regressive. There is an argument, too, that taking pictures 
of people or even scenery may violate provisions of the 
Qur'an concerned with recording images. Saudi art, which 
limits its subjects entirely to calligraphy, certainly seems to 
confirm that rendering natural objects as pictures is off limits. 
The safest photographic subjects are the country's most 
splendid non-strategic structures such as soaring city skylines. 
Street scenes inside expatriate compounds are acceptable 
subjects. So are the natural landscapes and subjects like 
camels. Whatever the subject, picture taking shouldn't be 
too overt. 


Entertainment in Saudi Arabia is more restricted than in 
most countries. Activities such as gambling, drinking, a wide 
range of literature, card playing, socialising with the opposite 
sex (other than family) and various sporting activities that 
display too much skin, are, in theory at least, all off limits. 
Saudis rule makers regard life as a very serious business with 
a stringent behaviour code. 

It was once said that the Puritans (a Christian sect 
prevalent in a past century in Europe) objected to bear 
baiting 'not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it 

180 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

gave pleasure to the spectators'. Likewise of the laws of Saudi 
Arabia might seem, to Westerners, targeted at banishing 
pleasure as distinct from advancing social justice. Measures 
that seem to take the fun out of life for no obvious reason 
include banning music played over telephones that are 
on hold and jingles on mobile phones, banning sending 
of flowers by friends and relatives to patients in hospital 
and banning the children's game Pokemon. Even chess is 
considered a questionable activity because of the possibly 
idolatrous nature of the pieces. 

According to one interpretation, the Prophet declared 
all forms of entertainment off limits for a Muslim except 
breaking a horse, drawing a bow, and amusing himself with 
his wives. Perhaps this is the reason for the prohibition on 
seemingly innocent pastimes, though it has to be said the 
Prophet was silent on the matter of Saudi Arabia's current 
favourite form of recreation — watching the national soccer 
team on TV. 


Camel racing is probably the only uniquely Saudi Arabian 
sport whose mass popularity has survived into modern 
times. For thousands of years the camel has been the sine 
qua non of desert life: the source of transportation, milk, 
meat, leather, wool, shade, shade-cloth as well as sport. 
Camels are one of the few animals that can keep hale 
and hearty on the meagre offerings of the desert. Though 
domestic camels show preference for more exotic foodstuffs, 
camels can survive on anything that is even remotely 
suggestive of being vegetable fare, such as spinifex and 
thorn bush. 

Though Saudi Arabia still contains plenty of camels 
living a traditional life as pack animals of Bedouin tribes, 
the country is now in the camel importing business. Some 
consider the best camels are those roaming in the wild over 
Australian deserts. These are the descendents of camels, 
originally from Arabia, that were brought to Australia in the 
1 9th century to serve as pack animals to supply Australia's 
outback settlements. According to Australian folklore, only 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 181 

The ship of the desert. 

the most robust and healthy camels survived the long sea 
journey, thus culling the weak from the genetic strain. 
When road and rail displaced camel trains in Australia, 
the animals were released, thriving to become the largest 
camel population in the world, and the only significant herd 
that runs wild with no human owner. Being isolated on an 
island, this herd may also the most disease-free. Australian 
camels have been imported for racing in Saudi Arabia along 
with Australian know-how of improved husbandry and 
training methods. 

Camel racetracks have been built in most of the kingdom's 
major centres. Races for prize money are held many weekends 
throughout the winter months. In the manner of racehorses, 
top dollar is paid for camels with breeding pedigree. Like 
horses, camels go faster with lightweights on their backs. Sad 
to say, Saudis have been known to engage jockeys as young 
as four years old, obtained from underprivileged countries 
like Bangladesh. 

Horses, now raced for sport, have also played a key part 
in Arabian history. Horses were first thought to have been 

The Kingdom Centre stands out prominently in 
the skyline of Riyadh. Towering at about 300 m 
it is the tallest skyscraper in Saudi Arabia. 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 183 

domesticated in about 4,000 bc, in the area of present-day 
Ukraine. One Bedouin legend offers an alternative account, 
claiming that the Arabian horse was God's gift to Ismael, 
son of Abraham, as a reward for his faith. Whatever their 
source, after they were domesticated, horses later spread 
throughout Arabia, Central Asia and Europe. Civilisations 
became dependent on their horses for agriculture, transport 
and military activity. 

Bedouins greatly treasured their horses, treating them 
as members of their household, thus ingraining in their 
horses a strong sense of loyalty towards their owners. Mares 
were especially prized because they were considered less 
temperamental than stallions and made less noise (thus not 
alerting the enemy during raids). 

Arabian horses were bred for their fine features, speed 
and endurance, whereas the heavier European horses were 
developed for strength and carrying capacity. The Arabian 
horse was an essential aid to the spread of the Islamic Empire. 
With superior speed and endurance over other strains, 
Arabian horses have become the basis of the bloodstock 
industry worldwide. 

Falconry, another sport with long traditions, is still enjoyed 
in the kingdom today. The apparently empty deserts offer 
sufficient small animals and birds to serve as prey, though 
overgrazing has reduced falcon populations in Saudi Arabia. 
Most falcons are now imported from neighbouring countries 
or further afield in Asia. 

Originally falconry served as a way for Bedouins to 
supplement their diet with wild game. As in the past, 
today's young falcons are taken from their nests, with the 
trainer becoming the surrogate 
mother. Once grown, the falcon 
is trained to perch on its trainer's 
arm. Since they make better 
hunters, female falcons are 
favoured over males. Female 
falcons are bigger and stronger 
than males, are more patient 
and less temperamental, and 

The falcon is a favourite mascot 
in the Middle East. For example 
Gulf Air's first class lounge is 
called the Falcon Lounge, in 
the UAE one of the brands 
of petrol is Falcon and the 
Arab Gulf Cooperative Council 
(AGCC) countries feature 
falcons on their bank notes 
and stamps. 

184 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

At the falcon market in Riyadh, pure-bred falcons can be traded for millions 
of riyals. 

are thought to have better eyesight. Falcons can live up to 
1 5 years. 

With the influx of guest workers into the kingdom came 
sports some of which have made and impact on the Saudi 
scene and some of which haven't. The most popular imported 
sport is soccer, the world's most popular ball game, which 
has well and truly caught the imagination of Saudi public. 
Like many countries, the country has spent plenty of money 
developing its national soccer team, arguably the strongest 
in the region. The Saudi national team has reached four 
consecutive World Cup finals in soccer — 1994, 1998, 2002 
and 2006. 

Basketball, introduced in the 1 950s by guest workers from 
the United States is another imported sport. Though the 
game did not catch on for decades, basketball increased in 
popularity after the introduction of a government programme 
encouraging participation among schoolchildren and the 
construction of hundreds of courts. 

Despite these programmes, participant sport is still not 
all that popular in Saudi Arabia. One possible reason is the 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 185 

The Saudi Arabian national team before their qualifying game for the 2006 
World Cup. 

climate. Another is the traditional clothing that Arabs wear. 
While registered sportspeople, like the Saudi football team 
wear regulation equipment for their sport, casual players are 
often seen attempting to play sports in their street clothes— 
which are spectacularly unsuited to just about every sport 
ever invented. Injuries are commonplace amongst those 
who trip over the hems of their thobes while attempting to 
knock a ball around. 

Clothing is even more of a problem for Saudis interested in 
beach sports. Despite a hot climate and warm water, Saudis 
are not known for their inclination to take a cooling dip. 
On beaches, normal Saudi dress code applies— a rule that 
sometimes leads to tragic consequences. A few years back, 
three Saudi women, who could not swim, drowned after 
getting into trouble at a beach north of Al-Jubayl. The women 
had entered the water fully clothed. They got out of their depth 
and were dragged down by their abayas, while their menfolk, 
similarly impeded, looked on helplessly from the beach. 

The heat, the restrictions on displays of public enjoyment 
and the restrictions on dress code in public do limit the 

188 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

pastimes in which Saudis get involved. Since the Saudis 
are sociable people with strong family ties, a principal 
form of recreation for Saudi nationals is visiting friends 
and relatives and having family picnics. Bedouins leading 
urban lives take this idea a step further in maintaining their 
links with their traditional haunts. Families take vacations 
in the desert, setting up tents and spending a week or 
two reliving something close to the life of their parents 
or grandparents. 


Guest workers who enjoy participant sports will find plenty 
of opportunities to show their talents in Saudi Arabia, 
particularly if they live in compounds. Sporting facilities 
in guest workers' accommodations in places like Jubail, 
Yanbu and Dhahran are excellent. The full range of sports 
are catered for— playing fields (usually with a fine gravel 
surface), running tracks, tennis, squash and racquetball 
courts, swimming pools and gymnasiums. 

Sights and Sounds of Saudi Arabia 189 

Uniquely Middle Eastern-style golf courses can also be 
found in the kingdom. One of the authors was a member of 
the Whispering Sands club (logo: a camel with a golf club 
clenched between its teeth). This layout was constructed 
by an earthmoving contractor who turned an otherwise 
unused desert area into an 1 8 hole golf course. Facilities at 
the club were exceptionally basic. Greens were areas of the 
desert smeared with a bitumen solution. Tees were raised 
areas equipped with driving mats. Fairways were sand dunes 
that had been levelled. The rough was sand dune country 
left pristine. 

Course architecture of this type has advantages and 
disadvantages from a player's point of view. The courses play 
long and, under the hot desert sun, arduously. An essential 
piece of equipment carried by golfers playing the sand belt 
courses of Saudi Arabia is a square piece of AstroTurf off 
which the ball is played wherever it lands. The principal 
advantage is that playing every shot on AstroTurf certainly 
improves the lies. One of the curiosities in playing golf in the 
sand pits of Saudi Arabia is that there are no bunker shots! 

Not all golf courses in the Middle East are quite like the 
Whispering Sands. Championship courses, of which there 
are a few, particularly in the UAE, offer completely irrigated 
grass layouts of a standard you would find anywhere. Saudi 
Arabia has one— the Riyadh Golf Club. 

Waters of both the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea are 
suitable for swimming— though on the Gulf side of the 
country, the beaches tend to shoal very gradually. Despite 
the volume of oil being extracted and shipped, waters and 
beaches on both sides of the country are reasonably clean. 
Beaches are segregated into family beaches and men- 
only beaches. No women-only beaches are known to exist. 
Single men must not use family beaches. Women can only 
use family beaches. Both sexes should take care to establish 
the status of the beach they are intending to use. 

Water sports other than swimming are also available. 
The Gulf, particularly the Red Sea, has a number of good 
dive sites where diving can be conducted hassle-free from 
the auhorities. Dive boats are available for hire. According 

190 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

to government websites, nautical activities such as sailing, 
windsurfing and waterskiing are permitted. But in the 
authors' experience, what is actually allowed may depend on 
the rules of the day as interpreted by local authorities. One 
of the concerns the authorities have about people messing 
about in boats is the opportunity for espionage. 

The moral aspect, too, must be borne in mind. An 
enterprising Dutch guest worker at a job site in Jubail once 
started an off-the-beach yacht club at a secluded beach. After 
a few successful meets, the club attracted a visit from the 
Mutawa'een. The objection of the religious police was not 
that the sailing club represented a threat to national security, 
but more that the Dutch girls on the beach and in the boats 
were, in their view, indecently clad. The club was raided, 
disassembled and closed down. By contrast, other sailing 
clubs, on both coasts, have remained open for many years. 
What gets shut down and what remains open is at the whim 
of individuals of the Saudi regulatory authorities responsible 
for community virtue. 


'An intelligent deaf-mute is better 
than an ignorant person who can speak.' 
—Arab Proverb 

192 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


Arabic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic 
is spoken by over 180 million people in North Africa, and 
most of the Middle East as their first language. As the 
language of the Qur'an it is studied by many millions more 
Muslims globally. 

Arabic is thought by some Westerners to be a difficult 
language because it is written in an unfamiliar script and 
some of the sounds are made at the back of the mouth and 
throat (the glottals). But it has its redeeming features. For 
instance, it is a stress/timed language making its rhythm 
predictable and regular whereas English reduces and blends 
sounds together to fit its stress patterns. Intonation patterns 
of English and Arabic are similar: for example, questions are 
posed with a rising intonation. 

The earliest copies of the Qur'an were written in a heavy 
monumental script known as Kufic but around ad 1000 
this was replaced by Naskhi, a lighter cursive script joining 
letters together and widely used in Saudi Arabia today. 
Modern Arabic is not all that unlike other written languages. 
It has an alphabet and rules of grammar. The Arabic 
alphabet probably came into existence in the 4th century 
ad has 28 letters — 22 consonants and six vowels. There are 
eight vowel sounds, including dipthongs, compared to 22 
in English. 

The three short vowels are: 

Learning Arabic 193 

■ a like the vowel in the word hat 

■ i like the vowel in the word hit 

■ u like the vowel in the word put 

The short vowels are not written because they occur in 
predictable patterns, although encoding words into script 
when script is being translated from English into Arabic 
can cause confusion, especially when your name is being 
translated into Arabic. 

The five long vowels are: 

■ aa as the vowel in father 

■ ii like the vowel in keen 

■ uu like the vowel in food 

■ oo like the vowel in home except the lips are rounder 

and tenser 

■ ee like the vowel in may but with the lips more 

tensely spread 
The consonants b, d, f, g, h, j, k, 1, m, n, s, t, v, w, y and 

z are virtually identical to their English counterparts. 

Pronunciation Guide 

As nicely summed up by Lawrence of Arabia himself, 
transliteration of Arabic words is fraught with difficulties. Many 
letters in the Arabic alphabet do not have an equivalent in the 
English language. Here is a brief explanation of the pronunciation 
of the letters as they appear in transliterated text 

a this is not normally written in Arabic, but does appear in 
transliterated text. Its pronunciation is somewhat similar 
to the a in bag. 

u is also not usually written in Arabic. Its pronunciation is 
similar to the u in put. 

i not written but pronunciation is similar to the i in sit. 

aa (a) this appears in Arabic and is often referred to as a long a 
like in father. It is sometimes transliterated as aa. 

uu (u) this sounds like a long o and is sometimes transliterated 
as oo. It sounds like the oo in spoon. 

ii (i) it's a long i and is sometimes transliterated as ee. 

194 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Pronunciation Guide (conintued) 



the pronunciation is similar to the English b 


it is pronounced like the English f 


rolled r, somewhat like the r in road 


similar to the English d 


similar to the English s 


similar to the English f 


similar to the English h 


similar to the English k 


similar to the English / 


similar to the English m 


similar to the English n 


spoken like the y in the word yes 


similar to the English w 


it sounds like a k but is pronounced deep in the throat 


it is similar to the ch in the German name Bach or the kh 

in khan 

g h 

specific to Arabic, it sounds like a highly expressed rolled r 


when written together in transliterated text, they denote 

one letter, pronounced like the th in the word think 


like th, sh denotes one letter and is pronounced like the 

sh in the word ship 


another combination that denotes one letter and is 

pronounced like the th in the word that. It has no sound 

and works as a pause in a word 

Most of the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet have similar 
sounds to those in English but Westerners often have difficulty 
in making some sounds. Some words like la meaning 'no' 
in Arabic require the speaker to make a sudden stoppage of 
breath at the conclusion of the word so that it sounds like 
'la-huh'. Other words like a'reed, meaning 'I want' in English, 
require the a to be pronounced as ah far back in the throat. 
The greeting phrase SabaHel Khair meaning 'good morning' 
requires the H to be pronounced similar to the h in English 
but far back in the throat. The Arabic word for the numeral 
five, khamseh, requires the kh to be a guttural sound like the 

Learning Arabic 195 

Scottish ch in loch or the German ch in nacht. The metric 
weight gram is ghram in Arabic and the gh is as a guttural 
sound far back in the throat as the French pronounce the 
letter r in Parisian. 


Arabic is read from right to left with the exception of the 
numbers which are read from left to right. Numbers in 
English are borrowed from the Arabic numeral system using 
one symbol each for through to 9 and then adding new 
place values for tens, hundreds, thousands, and so on. A list 
of numbers in Arabic is found in the Glossary. 

Arabic contains many references to God plus expressions 
of piety, courtesy and sociability. Bedouins infuse spoken 
Arabic with richness and emotion. The language has literary 
elegance, and a wide range of subtle meanings suit Arabic 
to poetry — a leisure activity of many Saudis. Formal poetry 
prose and oratory play a key role in Saudi culture. Bedouin 
poets passed on their history to following generations, 
recounting in their poems ideals of manliness, gallantry, 
bravery, loyalty, generosity and independence of spirit. 

Reflections of a Bedouin 

Sandra Mackey in her book The Saudis recounts the story of an old 
Bedouin man suffering from a chronic disease who launched into a 
perfectly constructed poem after being examined by an American 
doctor at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital. In his poem, he praised 
Allah for being allowed to come to this famous hospital but, in verse 
after verse, lamented the fact that he was not yet cured. 


Non-technical business communications within the kingdom 
are most likely to be in Arabic, with English communications 
fairly widespread. Technical subjects are mostly in English. 
With the advent of computers, the written aspects of business 
tend to be conducted in English, with perhaps an Arabic 
translation. Since Arabic is an alphabeticised language, it 
can be typed on a normal 'qwerty' style keyboard. Word 
processing software usually incorporates a switch facility on 

196 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

the standard keyboard so that bilingual typists can switch 
from one language to the other. 

Legal contracts tend to be written in English, or maybe 
both languages. Somewhat oddly, if the contracts are drafted 
in English, then translated into Arabic, the laws of the land 
require that in the event of conflict between the English and 
Arabic version, Arabic prevails; thus preserving any translation 
errors that have been made in the final agreementl 


Saudis also use language as a means of aggression rather than 
physically fighting. When Saudis communicate in Arabic or 
English, they often do with exaggerated flattery. Threats are 
conveyed with a similar level of exaggeration. Through their 
love of language, Saudis are swayed more by words rather 
than ideas and more by ideas than facts. 

As you go about your business, you will encounter shouting 
matches at incidents like motor vehicle collisions where the 
crowd of spectators become participants waving their hands 
around and making a great deal of noise. In the parking lot 
like the one at the Safeway Supermarket in Damman, you 
may see a Saudi sitting in his car blocking someone else who 
wants to get his car out. The blocking Saudi will not move 
until he has completed his argument with the other driver, 
or until assembled spectators to the disagreement force him 
to move his car. 

Despite such shouting matches, it is most unusual to see 
a Saudi strike another Saudi. This carries through to the 
government who, for example, regularly condemns the State 
of Israel in the most vehement and bloodcurdling terms but 
rarely takes action. 

Saudi commoners expect their princes to use poetic 
language in announcements to other nations. Western 
commentators may have trouble decoding the real message 
behind the words. Take for example the simple 'yes' or 'no'. 
To an American or another English-speaking Westerner, 
this is a definitive statement. Not so in the case of a Saudi. 
Because Saudis use flowery language and are accustomed 
to exaggeration and over-assertion, they find it difficult to 

Learning Arabic 197 

respond to a brief simple statement. So when you hear a 
Saudi say 'yes' to a business proposition, you have to keep 
in mind that chances are he really means 'maybe'. 

Like most languages, Arabic has regional variations, but not 
enough to prevent citizens throughout the Arab world from 
understanding each other. Classical Arabic and Gulf Arabic 
are the two main variants that are spoken in Saudi Arabia 
although there are five major dialects. 

Classical Arabic spoken in Egypt is generally held to be 
Arabic's most prestigious form and is readily understood 
in most of the Middle East because of the massive export 
of popular Arab culture in the form of films, TV soaps 
and popular songs. Its grammar is more complex than 
dialect Arabic. Classical Arabic is usually spoken in formal 
discussions, speeches and news broadcasts, and is the only 
form of written Arabic. 

Gulf Arabic is spoken by nationals in Bahrain, Kuwait, 
Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen, and is 
generally understood by Arabs living in Egypt, Lebanon, 
Jordan, Palestine, Sudan and Syria. Gulf Arabic is less 
understood by Arabs living in North Africa and Iraq, although 
one of the authors had few problems when he spoke Gulf 
Arabic in Baghdad. 


Arabic grammar is different from English grammar in quite 
a number of ways. In Arabic, verbs precede subjects. Adding 
laa or maa to a word makes it 

negative, rather in the same 
way as the English prefix un. 
Pronouns can be prefixed or 
suffixed to a verb which is always 
gender specific. Participles can 
be added to the beginning or end 
of words and can also be infixed 
or placed in the middle. 

For those that are interested in 
learning it, Arabic is an interesting 
language. Those who make the 

The attitude to learning Arabic 
varies with your role. If you are a 
diplomat, for example, mastery 
of Arabic may be highly 
regarded. If you are further 
down the pecking order, 
less so. Within the Western 
expat community there 
is an old school tie network 
centred on MEKAS which 
is a British Foreign Service- 
sponsored school in Lebanon 
that teaches Arabic to 
Western diplomats and 
senior executives. 

198 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

effort to tackle the alphabet and acquire a basic vocabulary 
are likely to get more out of their visit to the Middle East than 
those that don't. For anyone wanting to try learning Arabic, 
plenty of tutorial classes are available. 

One point to note: those who take the trouble to learn Arabic 
will need to exercise their Arabic language skills judiciously. 
If you know enough Arabic to understand a conversation in 
the language, you ought to do one of two things: either keep 
your language skills to yourself or announce them at the 
earliest possible opportunity. Arabs will generally assume 
that non Arab expatriates don't speak a word of Arabic. 
Arabs are accustomed to speaking among themselves in 
front of Westerners, confident that they are having a private 
conversation that cannot be understood. If they subsequently 
learn this assumption hasn't worked out, they may feel 
you have eavesdopped on their conversation. 


The following are few of the more common expressions used 
in base level conversation: 


Salaaam ali kum 

Response to 'hello' 

Wa alikum salam 

How are you 

Kay far lick 



Praise be to God 
(I'm fine ) 

Al humdallah 

Good morning 

Sabakl kair 

Good evening 

Sabakl noon 

My name is... 


What is your job? 

Aish shtuggle 

Where is 




How much 



Min fadhlek 

Learning Arabic 199 

Thank you Shookran 

Please take 


Come here 

Taal hini 





Arabian coffee Gahwa 

English words which derive 
from Arabic include 'alchemy', 
'alcohol', 'algebra', 'alkali' 
'almanac', 'arsenal', 'assassin', 
'cipher', 'elixir', 'nadir', 'mosque', 
'sugar', 'syrup' and 'zero'. 


The second language in Saudi Arabia, like most places is 
American English, which is taught in all schools and widely 
spoken throughout the Kingdom. Signage around the 
countryside is in Arabic and English. In addition, English 
tends to be the second language 
of the guest workers from non- 
English speaking countries and 
over time, has crept into every 
day Saudi speech. For example 
Saudis are inclined to answer 
the telephone with a Saudi 

corruption of 'hello-hallas' and concluding their conversation 
with the Arabic word yella meaning 'let's go' and then say in 
English 'bye-bye'. English words that have crept into everyday 
Arabic speech include 'sandwich', 'bus' and 'radio'. 


Saudi body language tends to be fairly forgiving. In fact, 
perhaps as you face your Saudi boss across the office desk 
and observe that under his desk, he has removed his sandals 
and is sitting on his foot placed on the seat of his chair, you 
may feel that in the area of bodily behaviour, anything goes. 
Like most places, Saudi Arabia does have a few prohibitions, 
though Saudis are not too pernickety in the unacceptable 
body language area. 

But there are a few gestures that are considered insulting. 
Amongst these are the upward raising of a single finger, 
excessive pointing, fist clenching and clapping an open palm 
over a closed fist. One thing Saudis do not like to see is the 
soles of your feet. This is not a culture where you would put 

200 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

your feet up on your desk, or even use a footrest. Exposing 
the soles of the feet to another person is considered a mild 
insult. You should be careful how you arrange your limbs 
and try not to cross your legs. 



'Make your bargain before beginning to plough.' 
—Arab Proverb 

202 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


During the 1 970s, under King Faisal, Saudi Arabia embarked 
on a programme to apply its oil revenue to building an 
industrial infrastructure. The obvious industries to develop 
were those based on hydrocarbon feedstock (from the oil 
refining process) such as fertilisers and plastics. For good 
measure, Saudi Arabia also built a steel industry based on 
reduction of iron oxide by gas instead of coal. 

Two fishing villages, Jubail on the Arabian Gulf and Yanbu 
on the Red Sea, were the selected locations for new industrial 
cities in which these industries were located. Both sites 
offered deepwater ports. Yanbu was strategically situated half 
way along the Red Sea coastline. Jubail lay at the centre of an 
oil/gas producing area and was the site of a major US naval 
base. From the basic industries it was hoped, the secondary 
and tertiary industries would also develop to transform Saudi 
Arabia into a manufacturing country. 

The development plan was grand in its vision. But 
ultimately its results have been marginal. The industrial cities 
did succeed in setting up some basic industries, but Saudi 
Arabia has not turned itself into a manufacturing nation in the 
manner of Japan, Singapore and other Asian countries. The 
basic industries were built, but no commensurate programme 
was undertaken to develop the technical personnel to run 
them. And despite its industrialisation programmeme, Saudi 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 203 

Saudis monitor share prices at a bank in Riyadh. 

Arabia remains almost entirely dependant on its exporting 
oil and gas products. 

After the second oil price spike of 1979, the price of oil 
went into a long decline and the fortunes of Saudi Arabia 
did likewise. As oil revenue declined, Saudi Arabia fell into 
deficit, financing its operations by borrowing. In the 1970s, 
Saudi Arabia had been a creditor country. By the 1 990s, Saudi 
national debt was over 100 per cent of GDP. 

But reprieve was at hand. A third boom for Saudi Arabia 
started at the turn of the century with oil prices rising for 
five years before topping out in 2008, then entering another 
precipitous decline in the following year. During periods 
of strong oil prices, Saudi Arabia bolstered its reserves of 
foreign capital. During the down years, the country deficit 
budgeted. Either way seems to have had little direct effect 
on the demand for expat labour. In the short term at least, 
the country has continued to hire foreign labour regardless 
of the oil price. 


Despite two generations since the first commercial 
development of their own oilfields, Saudis of the present day 
seem to be no more capable of running their own country 

204 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

than they were when their industrialisation started in the 
1 940s. They still rely on a massive foreign workforce to get 
their day's work done. The question is often asked— why can't 
the Saudis run their own country? The answer seems to lie in a 
mix of cultural and historical reasons that have changed little 
since Saudi Arabia first attempted to make the transition into 
a modern country. 

One reason proposed is the absence of a traditional work 
culture. Agriculture, according to anthropologists such as 
Jared Diamond (and detailed in his prize winning book, 
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies), was 
the wellspring of the present work ethic of both the East 
and West. In the West, the idea that man was put into the 
world to toil is sometimes referred to as the 'Protestant work 
ethic' — an invention not merely of the Christian Church, but 
also of the lord of the manor of the feudal system during 
the Middle Ages. In times past, peasants were compelled to 
work in the fields from dawn to dusk. When the Industrial 
Revolution came along, the work ethic was transferred into 
town where workers toiled from dawn to dusk in the factories 
of the new industrial world. In societies with a culture of 
permanent agriculture and then of industrialisation, work 
was an essential part of life. Work filled people's lives. Sloth 
was listed as one of the seven deadly sins of economics— 
and still is. 

Such a mindset never got underway in Saudi Arabia. 

Around 3000 bc, the permanent agriculture of the Sumerians 
took root in the 'Fertile Crescent', centred around the Tigris- 
Euphrates confluence in present-day Iraq. Permanent 
agriculture then spread east and west, becoming the mainstay 
of both Asian and Western societies. But Sumerian agriculture 
ultimately failed. Major factors behind this failure were 
salinity and climate change. The area became increasingly 
arid and depopulated as a result. Few large permanent 
settlements existed from which artisanship and innovation 
could spring. While agriculture prospered elsewhere in 
the world, and industry later followed, the region which 
invented permanent agriculture drifted back into nomadic 
animal husbandry. 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 205 

After that, little changed for thousands of years. Bedouins 
lived a hand-to-mouth existence of driving their flocks 
between one patch of meagre grass and the next. While 
their animals were grazing, there was little for Bedouins to 
do during the hottest hours of the day but shelter from the 
brutal sun inside their camel-hair tents. Conditions were too 
harsh over most of the country for crops. As a result, Saudi 
Arabia failed to develop a culture of working in the fields 
from which a tradition of working in factories flowed in other 
countries. Bedouin traditions were more in line with other 
hunter-gatherer societies — Australian Aborigines, Eskimos, 
most North American Indians and Khalari Bushmen — who 
were also fast-forwarded into the modern-day work culture 
without the time to adjust to the work ethic that gripped 
much of the rest of the world. 

Despite the Arab advances of the Middle Ages, when 
industrialisation arrived in the 20th century, Saudi Arabia 
wasn't prepared for it. Unlike countries like the US, 
Saudi Arabia had no history of pioneering struggle to 
lay its foundations for a modern state. Unlike countries 
of Europe, and even Egypt, there were no generations 
of transition from agriculture to industrialisation. Unlike 
the nations further east — India and China — no complex 
administration was in place to handle commerce, trade 
and government. 

With the advent of oil, the Saudis made a giant leap forward 
from Bedouinism to the consumer age in a single stride. The 
solution to the shortage of labour skills was promoted by 
oil companies themselves — hire a skilled foreign workforce 
to build an alien technocrat core within a technologically 
ignorant society. This was easily accomplished in just a few 
years. A society based on oil was an easier transition than 
other forms of industrialisation that revolutionised economies 
in other countries. Oil was simple. Oil companies drilled an 
oil well. Oil flowed to the surface all by itself, discharged 
into a pipeline and from there into an oil tanker. Everyone 
made money. 

The influence of the Wahabbism sect of the Muslim 
religion was another factor that prevented Saudis from 

206 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

acquiring the skills needed to run their own country. 
Wahabbism is a highly dogmatic belief system that resists 
new knowledge, rejecting as sinful what other nations term 
as 'progress'. Nations with a more tolerant brand of Islam 
have done better reconciling their Islamic beliefs with the 
ideals and aspirations of the modern world. Malaysia, for 
example, has managed to maintain its religious core culture 
while building a successful modern economy. 
But not Saudi Arabia. 

The type of education Saudis receive is a related factor 
inhibiting the country's progress. The education system trains 
the new generation in theology not technology. A bachelor's 
degree in Islamic philosophy is not a qualification that finds 
employment in a job market that seeks engineers, skilled 
workers, technicians and business graduates. In the 1 990s, 
over 6 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) 
was spent on education— much higher than most countries 
of a similar economic profile. But little of this expenditure 
had brought tangible benefits to the country. 

Saudi Arabian Self Sufficiency: 
the UN Assessment 

In 2002, the United Nations (UN) published the Arab Human 
Development Report which considered the question of Saudi 
Arabia's lack of labour self-sufficiency. The report found factors 
contributing to the kingdom's dependency on foreign labour 
were lack of personal freedom, poor education, government 
appointments based on factors other than merit and rules against 
employing women, particularly in small business. 

Says the Arab Human Development Report: 'The barrier to better 
Arab performance is not a lack of resources, but the lamentable 
shortage of three essentials: freedom, knowledge and manpower. 
It is these deficits that hold the frustrated Arabs back from reaching 
their potential — and allow the rest of the world both to despise and 
to fear a deadly combination of wealth and backwardness.' 

— Source: Arab Human Development Report, 
Nader Fergany, Egyptian sociologist and 
chief author of the report, 2000 
published by the UN development programmeme. 

Perhaps another reason for Saudi Arabia's failure to train 
up a labour force is simply habit. With its long traditions 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 207 

of slavery, Saudis were accustomed to having the guest 
workforce around. Peons were imported to perform low- 
grade tasks in Saudi Arabia, even before oil was discovered. 
Importing the highly-skilled workforce to build and operate 
oilfields and processing facilities was merely an extension 
of a habitual dependency. 

Whatever the reasons, at the time of writing, Saudis 
have made little progress in taking over the running of their 
own country from their guest workforce. There are almost 
certainly more expatriate workers in the private sector 
workforce than Saudis, although reliable statistics are hard 
to come by. Saudis have allowed this situation to drift along 
for decades. They have been unable, one would have to say 
they haven't tried very hard, to educate their own workforce 
and develop their own expertise. 

An interview in The Economist of 11 January 2003 recorded 
the thoughts one of Saudi Arabia's 5,000 princes on his 
country. "We are the most conservative country in the 
world," he said. Commented The Economist on the prince's 
remarks, 'with enforced Puritanism, medieval system of 
governance and culture of secrecy, the kingdom appears 
uniquely resistant to change.' 

With change looking no more likely to happen than 
ever, bright prospects for the guest workforce look set 
to continue. 


One of the questions that might intrigue a visitor to Saudi 
Arabia is this: here is a country which has imported an alien 
workforce to perform tasks which in other countries provide 
employment to the average person in the street. Wouldn't 
this practice give rise to massive unemployment? What 
do people do for a living when three-quarters of society's 
normal occupations are removed and transferred to an 
imported workforce? 

One immediate reply is that half the people who would go 
to work in most other countries are unable to do so in Saudi 
Arabia for no better reason than they are women. But that 
still leaves an available indigenous workforce of about six 

208 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

million males aged 1 5-64, many of whom, according to the 
scanty statistics available, appear to be out of work. Which 
raises the question of how the local population spend their 
time and get money to live. 

What is the rate of unemployment in Saudi Arabia? 

The CIA World Factbook's convenient summary of the 
demographic statistics gives the unemployment figure for 
Saudi Arabia as up to 25 per cent, while noting the true figure 
is uncertain. For comparison, a statement from the Sixth 
Development Plan (1 995-2000) states that the 'participation 
rate [of Saudi nationals in the domestic labour market in 
the mid-1990s]... is only 30.2 per cent." Other sources give 
a similar impression of extremely high unemployment in 
Saudi Arabia. 

As an aside, it should be mentioned that this figure does 
not include half the people who would go to work in other 
countries but are unable to do so for no better reason than 
that they are women. When assessing the unemployment 
rate in Saudi Arabia, women are not included in the 
calculations. If they were, unemployment would be around 
80 per cent. 

Unemployment in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly get 
worse before it gets better. With nearly half the population of 
Saudi nationals under 1 6 years old, youth unemployment— 
already a considerable problem— seems likely to exacerbate 
in the future as the young population bulge is discharged 
from schools into the workforce. 

Saudi Arabia has made desultory attempts to overcome 
this problem without really addressing the underlying 
issues that are causing unemployment in the first place. 
The policy to get Saudis into work is embodied in the 
phrase 'Saudisation of the workforce'. The Saudisation 
programme, which has passed into legislation, requires 
Saudi companies to increase the number of Saudi nationals 
on their payroll by 5 per cent per year. Another measure 
of the Saudisation programme is to offer free vocational 
guidance and financial assistance for anyone wanting to 
establish their own business. The Saudis have proclaimed 
legislation that only Saudis could work in designated 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 209 

industries such as selling gold and driving taxis. These laws 
were fairly quickly rescinded when the targeted industries 
degenerated, almost immediately, into chaos after guest 
workers were replaced by Saudis with no job knowledge 
and little inclination to work. 

Various conflicts between the five pillars of Islam and the 
modern world also compromise successful Saudisation. Even 
something as simple as salat— the requirement to pray five 
times a day— erodes productivity. Inshallah culture that God 
will take care of the smallest details breeds indifference to 
outcomes. The Wahhabi doctrine that no knowledge exists 
outside the Qur'an inhibits the learning of commercially 
useful skills. Only a massive change in the very cultural 
fabric of society — in particular religion — is likely to improve 
Saudisation performance. As long as religious studies 
remain the central theme in education, Saudi Arabia is 
unlikely to generate the skilled workforce it needs to run its 
own country. 

The Wrong Skills for the Job 

"The companies who come to see us are looking for skilled workers, 
business grads, engineers and technicians," said Nassir Salih al- 
Homoud, director of an unemployment office in Burayday, a quiet 
farming centre of 350,000 in central Saudi Arabia. Few Saudis qualify. 
One of his clients is Abdulrahman al-Ali, 25. "I've been trying to find 
a job for a year," said al-Ali. "When I submit an application, people 
say they will call me, but they never do." 

"The problem is his schooling." al Homoud comments. "Like many 
Saudis, al-Ali has a bachelor's degree in Islamic philosophy.'" 

—Source: 'Kingdom on Edge: Saudi Arabia', 
National Geographic, October 2003. 

The entire service industry, the biggest sector of most 
economies, has proved difficult to staff from the local 
workforce. An international retail chain embarked on a 
programme to employ hundreds of Saudi Nationals. After 
applications were received and processed, the company 
found itself unable to engage a single Saudi. . The firm found 
that young Saudi men are culturally attuned to being served, 
not to serving. 

210 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Likewise, Saudis are not normally interested in becoming 
truck drivers, factory hands, manual labourers, domestic 
servants, shop assistants and secretaries. And they do 
not qualify in sufficient numbers to take most of the 
jobs available as engineers, technicians, accountants 
and doctors. Guest workers from both ends of the job 
spectrum are imported into the kingdom to fill these jobs, 
thereby filling most of the labour market needs across the 
economy, from menial tasks that Saudis find undignified 
and too poorly paid to highly skilled tasks that are too 
technically demanding. 



Employers have other reasons too for looking unkindly 
on the products of the Saudisation programme. One 
objection to hiring Saudis expressed by executives in a 
Jeddah-based company is that Saudi nationals take many 
more days off than their expat counterparts. Another is 
that, under employment legislation applying to Saudis 
(but not to the guest work force), once hired, a Saudi 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 211 

cannot be fired. Another is the lack of obliging servility 
that is expected from employees in the service industry. A 
parallel objection from the unemployed Saudis themselves 
is that pay rates for low-skilled jobs are very low. Unskilled 
labour is cheap in Saudi Arabia, a country with no unions, 
no labour laws and almost limitless competition for jobs 
from applicants in countries as far afield as India, the 
Philippines and Thailand. 

Such has been the resistance from employers (who are as 
often as not either members of the Royal Family or have royal 
connections) that the government has had to back down on 
its attempts at Saudisation. When companies complained 
that they had to pay higher salaries to Saudis in return for 
poorer standards of work, the government relaxed the rules 
on hiring expatriates. 

At the personal level, Saudis may feel a level of shame 
about the inability of their nation to get its day's work done 
without massive assistance. As a guest worker yourself, you 
may occasionally experience resentment expressed by your 
Saudi boss or your fellow employees. Saudis may get more 
than usually touchy about your performance of the job you 
have come to do. They may go to great lengths to explain to 
you why they need your services in the country instead of 
hiring a Saudi to do the job. This conversation is unlikely to 
touch on the real reason why your services are required— the 
clash of cultures between traditional Saudi beliefs and the 
skill requirements of the real world. In the opinion of most 
commentators, unless the Saudis fix their educational system, 
of which your boss is probably a product, the country's 
dependence on an expat workforce will most likely continue 
as will Saudi sensitivity on the subject. 


Industrialisation projects originally initiated by King 
Faisal highlighted another aspect of Saudisation to one 
of the authors. These projects aimed not only to develop 
the physical infrastructure, but also the intellectual 
infrastructure by endeavouring to create a highly trained 
workforce of Saudis to take over future projects from the 

212 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

expatriate workforce. To facilitate the transfer of skills, guest 
workers were sat side-by-side with Saudi counterparts during 
their time on the project. The trainer was the guest worker 
and the trainee was a Saudi who, at some future period, was 
expected to take over the guest worker's job. 

This aspect of the Saudisation programme moved at glacial 
speed since trainers and trainees shared a mutual disinterest 
in the training objective. The guest worker didn't come to 
Saudi Arabia to work himself out of a job. The Saudi trainee 
didn't have an overwhelming desire to join the workforce. 
At an individual level, the two parties could co-operate on a 
mutually beneficial policy of preserving the status quo. 

The training programme also suffered through the 
lingering slave owner mentality of the trainees themselves. 
Saudi trainees saw themselves as the client. They saw the 
guest worker as the hourly hire. The slave-owner/slave 
relationship was not the ideal arrangement for passing on 
knowledge from the slave to the slave owner. Saudi trainees 
were no more interested in receiving their training than the 
expats were in providing it. 

Trainees lacked an additional motivation to emerge from 
their trainee role. Many saw themselves as perpetual students. 
Given the opportunity to pursue a full-time career as a trainee, 
Saudi trainees were forever agitating to be sent overseas to 
undertake new university courses, preferably in the USA. One 
expertise the trainees did develop was in the area of training 
courses. Trainees queued up to participate in government- 
sponsored overseas study courses, seemingly more by a desire 
for an expenses-paid trip out of the country than to acquire 
needed qualifications. There was always another course to 
study, even for the trainee approaching middle age. 

During your employment in the country, you may well find 
your employer earnestly explaining to you the importance 
of training a Saudi to take your place. Listen politely and say 
you understand. Your predecessor probably had the same 
conversation and so far nothing has happened. Thousands 
of Saudis have been sent to the best overseas centres of 
education that money can buy to acquire every piece of 
knowledge their country can possibly need to make it run 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 213 

like a Swiss watch. But guest workers continue to be imported 
to do the work in greater numbers than ever before. There 
are little signs at all that Saudis are becoming any more self- 
sufficient than they ever were. Which probably means, so 
far as the guest worker is concerned, the Saudi employment 
bonanza will continue. 


A word that you will hear repeatedly in conversations between 
Saudis is inshallah meaning 'if God wills it'. Inshallah embodies 
the Arab philosophy of fatalism in the same way that manana 
embodies the Latin philosophy of procrastination. Unlike 
the Saudis themselves, the Saudi God is considered to be 
tremendously industrious, getting involved in the minutiae 
of every Muslim's life, making millions of decisions every 
second of the day of the most mundane aspects. Under the 
inshallah philosophy, believers may abandon all decision- 
making to God, neatly rationalising their own work avoidance 
as a violation of the Almighty's will. 

Inshallah thinking can be a tremendous irritant to the 
Western workforce. To holders of the Western work ethic, 
inshallah culture borders on intellectual laziness. But in its 
own context, inshallah thinking is a completely self consistent 
system of belief. If God has already pre-ordained every aspect 
of the future, planning ahead has no purpose. Why bother to 
plan if the outcome has already been determined by a higher 
being? In fact, planning ahead may be counterproductive. 
God might have cause to feel put out by the interference of 
man in the smooth unfolding of His future plans. On that 
argument, the puny efforts of man to plan ahead could be 
dangerous to one's spiritual health. 


The time that Saudis are obliged to devote to their religious 
needs is considerable. Of the five daily prayer calls, three 
are answered during the working day. Competition between 
religious time and work time for Saudis at the workplace 
can be exasperating for those from countries with a more 
structured work culture. 

214 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Saudis will stop what they are doing in order to attend prayers. 

From the point of view of a guest worker in regular 
contact with Saudis, the call to prayer during working hours 
is a major disruption in the workplace. While it might seem 
practicable to schedule work around prayer breaks, in the 
manner of lunch breaks and meal breaks, this doesn't 
seem to happen, perhaps for no better reason than prayer 
calls are answered only by Muslims. Prayer calls leave 
the normal working day highly fragmented. As an 
alien guest worker you can be engaged is some deep and 
meaningful conversation with your boss, your friend or 
your bank manager when the muezzin or the loudspeaker 
announces the time for prayers. On a construction site 
you may be in the middle of a concrete pour. Whatever 
the situation, Muslims will answer the call, stop work 
and head for the nearest mosque, if there is one. (If 
there isn't, prayers will still be conducted, but at an 
alternative venue.) 

Of the five prayer calls each day, the most disruptive 
from a business point of view are those in mid-morning and 
mid-afternoon. By the time participants have left the work 
site, made it to the mosque (which under law should never 
be more that 800 metres from every inhabited spot in the 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 215 

country), offered their prayers, perhaps stopped to chat with 
each other after proceedings in the mosque are completed, 
and made it back to work, half an hour to 40 minutes will 
have elapsed. 

Praying on the Job 

In the old days, before most of Saudi Arabia built its thousands of 
mosques, prayer time devotions would be performed from a prayer 
mat laid upon some level piece of ground. This is still the method for 
those out of range of a mosque at prayer time. Even in the middle 
of a business meeting, a prayer mat may be laid in a corner of the 
office, and the meeting adjourned while Muslims present perform 
their religious obligations and non-Muslims at the meeting look on. 
When prayers are complete, prayer mats will be rolled up, and the 
meeting will resume. (This arrangement takes less time and is less 
disruptive to the business of the meeting than having half the meeting 
attendees walk or drive to and from the nearest mosque.) 

At whatever level you work in Saudi Arabia, the demands 
of religion on the workplace will be felt. If you work for 
a Saudi boss, religion will consume your boss's time. If 
Saudis work for you, religion will consume the time of your 
employees. From a business viewpoint, this aspect of religious 
practice performed twice or three times in every working 
day, must take its toll on the country's productivity and 
economic competitiveness. 

The effect of the prayer call is felt further afield than the 
office. Prayers close down business operations across the 
country two or three times per day. If you are in a shop when 
the prayer call is heard, the shop may close and you may be 
discharged onto the street. If you happen to make a badly- 
timed visit to a restaurant and the prayer call is heard you 
may be bundled outside between courses, or even halfway 
through a course. If you are half way through a transaction 
at a bank, you may have to return to complete the other 
half about 45 minutes later. In addition to the massive loss 
of time each day to religion, Saudis are very often late for 
appointments anyway. So habitual is this practice it has 
earned its own sobriquet — ma'esh time — which loosely 
translated means late time. 

216 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

All in all, despite occasional lip service to the contrary, 
Saudis, by and large, are not greatly impressed by the 
Western drive for getting things done in a hurry. Displays of 
exasperation by guest workers at breaks in the flow of work 
are not well regarded. It's not considered good form to show 
displeasure if the attention of your Saudi colleague strays 
from the subject under discussion. Stressed guest workers 
might take a leaf out of the book of the Saudi hosts at this 
juncture. It's not a bad idea to say to yourself as your work 
slips from dangerously behind schedule to critical: inshallah, 
this is the way things are in this part of the world. Life unfolds 
to a pattern determined by a higher being. Schedules that 
don't work out are not merely the fault of man: they are also 
the will of God. 


Arab culture is not really one that sets great store by the letter 
of the law. Arabs are unlikely to have quite such the same 
regard for contracts as their Western counterparts. This is 
one of the major cultural differences between west and east 
that has frustrated many a westerner more accustomed to a 
society that operates according to written rules. 

In their negotiations Saudis expect to do lots of talking 
and lots of bargaining. They expect their negotiating partners 
to do the same. However even though an agreement is 
eventually reached, the terms of a written contract may mean 
little in the event of a conflict. In an arrangement that is not 
working out to the advantage of the Saudi partner, you are 
likely to find that your partner may try to change the terms 
of the contract without notice, and quite possibly without 
your knowledge. Saudis don't expect to expend their energies 
debating points of law about the changes they propose. 
Arabs are traders and have been for a long time. To them a 
written contract may be regarded more as an expression of 
the intention at a point in time rather than a hard and fast 
arrangement. After the written contract is signed, they will 
still be inclined to talk and bargain. 

Whether your employment contract or business contract 
is worth the paper it is written on depends mainly on the 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 217 

co-operation of the Saudi partner. In the event of a dispute, 
Saudi law may offer little protection to foreigners, either 
collectively or individually. Collectively, Saudi Arabia has 
refused to sign a number of international agreements, 
including labour agreements. Individually, a Saudi can 
generally rely on the courts to support his version of events 
in a disagreement with his foreign partner to the contract. 
The terms of a written contract are most likely to be upheld 
in Saudi Arabia if the contracting partner is a large foreign 
company. Next best is a foreign-Saudi partnership. If you 
have contracted to a fully-owned Saudi business, the smaller 
the business, the less the entitlements you feel are yours 
under your employment contract are likely to be understood 
by your Saudi partner or employer. In the Saudi Arabian 
small business world, written contracts are neither widely 
understood, nor highly regarded. 

In addition, when argued in court, elements of the 
contract, particularly those relating to payment, may be 
illegal under Shariah Law if in the opinion of the judges 
it infringes on some interpretation of the Qur'an. In this 
case, provisions of the Qur'an will prevail over those of 
the contract. 

218 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

People working in domestic duty are in the weakest 
situation of all. They may well be asked to work 
16-18 hour days without holidays or days off. They may 
or may not be paid at the agreed rate. Whether they get 
paid at all is at the discretion of the employer. If they are 
female, or even if they are male, they may be pressured to 
grant sexual favours. The embassies of countries like the 
Philippines have had little success at protecting the 
rights of the citizens working in Saudi Arabia. Whatever 
goodwill the employees might enjoy from their employers 
is entirely based on the personal relationships that 
are forged. 

Paying off the Agent 

Workers from the Third World are particularly vulnerable to 
mistreatment by their Saudi bosses. Despite the hazards and 
discomforts, competition for jobs in Saudi Arabia is high, even 
though written contracts of employment are onerous. Workers are 
normally recruited in their home countries by employment agents 
who make their own arrangements with Saudi officials issuing work 
visas. According to a UN report on the subject, such agents typically 
charge their clients extravagant 'processing fees'. Cases have been 
cited of Asian nationals paying engagement fees of up to two years 
wages payable to their agent before they see any money of their 
own. Nevertheless, guest workers accept these terms. When they've 
paid off their agents, as often as not, they will remit most of their 
earnings to home base to finance their extended families back home. 
Such are the economic exigencies of the Third World that there 
is no shortage of applicants for positions carrying onerous terms 
of employment. 

Occasionally people may wish to change employers while 
working in the country. Since work visas are issued by your 
existing employer, this is only possible with the cooperation 
of the three parties involved in the transaction— your existing 
employer, your new employer and the Saudi government. 
Not only do you need your employer's permission to 
leave the country, you need his permission to leave his 
employment — a process that can take months even with 
willingness on both sides. Switching employers in Saudi 
Arabia is difficult but not impossible. 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 219 

Building Regulations and the Qur'an 

After construction of the new Saudi city in Jubail was underway, 
the Mutawa'een paid a visit to the engineering drawing office. After 
inspecting the project drawings, the Mutawa'een ordered that all 
layout drawings of the project should also include an arrow showing 
the direction of Mecca, which happened to lie approximately WSW 
on this particular project. This direction arrow was duly added to 
drawings without too much difficulty. 

However, trouble was to follow. A little while later, the Mutawa'een 
paid another visit to demand that no sewage could flow in the 
direction of the Mecca arrow (sewage flowing towards Mecca would 
have been considered insulting to Islam). The engineers then sat down 
to figure out how this requirement could be met without tearing up 
most of the work done so far. 

Technically complying with the requirement wasn't possible. 
Streets and the pipes they contained ran in all directions. The 
engineers considered and rejected various arguments. That no other 
cities in Saudi Arabia complied with this requirement was rejected 
as a defence on the grounds that rules of precedent were a foreign 
concept to Saudi law. There was, of course, no point in disputing 
the relevant text in the Qur'an, the interpretation of which the 
Mutawa'een themselves were the world's leading experts. Instead, 
the engineers opted for the Non-Flat Earth Defence. The engineers 
argued that since the Earth was round and since Mecca was about 
800 km from Jubail, nothing constructed horizontal or near horizontal 
could, on a three-dimensional view of the world, be considered as 
pointing in the direction of a town well over the horizon. Against most 
expectations, the Mutawa'een bought this explanation. Nothing in 
the Qur'an said the earth was flat! Engineers drew a collective sigh 
of relief and construction work continued. 

But the Mutawa'een later returned. They had considered 
the three-dimensional view of the universe, they said, and were 
concerned about the orientation of toilets inside the houses of the 
new town. When pressed for details, the Mutawa'een explained 
their concern about the direction of flow of sewage in the act of 
using the toilets. They pointed out that, at some part in its trajectory 
would inevitably be in the direction of Mecca! They suggested 
that construction work be put on hold while engineers considered 
this problem. 

A number of meetings were held at which the trajectory of 
urination was debated at some length, but no solution could be 
suggested. Cost engineers were summoned to estimate the cost of 
re-orientating the direction of those toilets in houses, which pointed 
WSW. Earnest discussions were held on what direction of toilet, in 
which the plumbing was vertical actually meant. No conclusion was 
reached. Construction proceeded cautiously while the next visit from 
the Mutawa'een was awaited. But they never returned, at least not 
to pursue this issue. They had made their point. 

In Saudi Arabia, the Qur'an rules and the clerics interpret it. 

220 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Since the Qur'an was written in the 7th century ad, many 
of the matters the law has to interpret were not in existence 
when the basis of the law was written. When one considers 
what wasn't around when the Prophet lived his life — running 
water, sewerage, cars, telephones, paper and so on— it is 
some minor miracle that modern society run to the rules of 
Shariah Law can operate at all. 

One of the difficulties with the commercial side of 
doing business in Saudi Arabia has been that Islam isn't 
really comfortable with the notion of paying interest on 
loans. Those lending money to Saudi institutions should be 
wary. Borrowers who default on their interest payments 
may escape their interest obligations on the grounds of 
that, under Shariah Law, the lender's loan was illegal in 
the first place. 

Islam is also uncomfortable with the notion of insurance 
on the grounds that actuarial science can be interpreted as 
a form of gambling, which is against the tenets of Islam. 
The impossibility of hedging normal business risks can also 
increase the difficulty of doing business in Saudi Arabia. 

The Saudi authorities recognise and are making some 
attempt to overcome the country's cultural conflicts 
between religion and normal business practice in the 
modern commercial world. The Government has created 
Special Tribunals tasked with the job of finding ways to 
circumnavigate the more restrictive aspects of Shariah Law 
and keep the wheels of industry turning. These Special 
Tribunals now hear most commercial law cases ranging 
from breach of contract suits to trade mark infringement 
and labour disputes. 

To overcome the theological objection to insurance, a form 
of co-operative insurance known as takaful (under which 
resources are pooled to help the needy) has been around 
for centuries. Takaful casts the insured in the role of the 
potentially needy, and thereby overcomes the objection to 
acturial calculations by regarding the insured as a recipient of 
charity. Other forms of insurance are also gradually becoming 
accepted. For example, third party insurance to provide diya 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 221 

payments to road accident victims is now compulsory. A 
social insurance system was recently introduced, aimed at 
looking after the health care and other social needs of Saudi 
citizens in private business. Subscription under this scheme 
is voluntary, set at 1 8 per cent of the employee's salary, and 
shared 50:50 between employer and employee. A parallel 
compulsory insurance scheme for expat workers is also 
operating to oblige employers to provide health insurance 
for their employees. 


The Shariah Law rules on income tax is good news for guest 
workers. The Qur'an, according to the clerics, prohibits the 
levying of income tax. But, as the kingdom sank deeper 
into deficit in the 1980s and 1990s, the interpretation 
of the Qur'an prohibiting income tax came under 
cautious scrutiny. 

Saudi Arabia's objection to income tax was not merely 
religious. It was also political. Most people are quite 
aware of the extravagances of the House of Saud. If these 
extravagances were financed by oil money, that was thought 
to be one thing. If they were financed from the pockets of 
citizens, it might be quite another. To date, given their tribal 
cultural background, Saudi Arabians had not worried all 
that much about their lack of voting rights. But imposing 
taxes was thought likely to raise the argument: 'no taxation 
without representation'. 

At the date of writing, Saudi Arabia is one of few countries 
which has never had to levy income tax. As a result of King 
Faisal's far-sighted policy in 1 970 of wresting Saudi oil from 
the hands of major oil companies, Saudi Arabia owns its 
own resources. The country now lives almost entirely off the 
earnings of its oil company Aramco. Public revenue derived 
from this source has risen and fallen over the years with 
the oil price. After the oil price rises from 2003 onwards, 
pressures to increase government revenue through income 
tax abated. The government could once more finance its 
operations through oil revenue. Discussions about income 
tax were quietly shelved. 

222 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

In terms of tax, as things stand at the moment, income 
earned by guest workers in Saudi Arabia remains untaxed 
and this arrangement looks likely to stand for the immediate 
future. Shariah Law states that one-fortieth of personal assets 
(zakat), an effective wealth tax of 2.5 per cent is meant to be 
given to charity. This is a voluntary arrangement based on 
religious beliefs and is not applied to the guest workforce. 


Issuing and receiving criticism is a tricky subject in any 
culture. The human race doesn't vary all that much in this 
area. No one, no matter what nation they belong to, enjoys 
being criticised. But it's probably fair to say that criticism 
of Saudis by members of their guest workforce has to be 
handled with unusual sensitivity. Candid criticism of a Saudi 
by a Westerner can quite easily be interpreted as a personal 
insult. A Saudi should never be criticised directly, or even 
to a third party. In the area of criticism and personal pride, 
Saudi culture is Eastern. Face matters. Face lost may never 
be regained. Criticism needs to be delivered indirectly, and 
never in front of others, and so circumspectly (amongst 
much praise and thanking for small favours) that it is 
scarcely noticeable. 

If you have bad news to tell your Saudi boss, it should be 
delivered in such a way that there is no suggestion that a 
Saudi is responsible. A good technique is to first praise your 
Saudi boss for his business acumen and then to attribute the 
unpleasant news to bad luck. The more your boss convinces 
himself that your bad news is the will of Allah and not human 
error, the more easily the problem is likely to be resolved. 


Those going to Saudi Arabia to run businesses inside Saudi 
Arabia with Saudi partners and subject to Saudi law are 
advised to check out their intended partners very carefully. 
If you're working for a Saudi Arabian company, obtaining 
and nourishing the goodwill of your Saudi sponsor is all 
important. Falling out with one's Saudi partners usually 
results in financial loss, whatever the legal rights and wrongs 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 223 

of the issue. Generally, if a contract is terminated, deportation 
from the kingdom follows, on the grounds that the reason for 
your being issued a visa in the first place is no longer valid. 

Worse than deportation, in the experience of some, is the 
incarceration inside the country on some trumped up charge. 
Serious breakdown of relations between Saudis and their 
expatriate employees have led to some extraordinary escape 
stories when employers refused to return the passports of 
their employees or grant them exit visas. When all other 
avenues were closed to them, expat employees in conflict 
with their Saudi employers have been known to freight 
themselves out of the country as sea or air cargo— rolled up 
in a Persian rug, or nailed up inside a packing case! 

Collecting from Royalty 

In a widely publicised case in 1986, a US citizen and businessman 
Sam Bamieh went to Saudi Arabia to collect money owed to him by 
a business associate of the House of Saud. On arrival in Saudi Arabia, 
the Saudi creditors promptly had Bamieh thrown into jail in Jeddah 
without charge— and there he probably would have stayed except 
that he was able to get his plight known all the way up to the State 
Department who got him released. 

On return to the US (without his money) Bamieh, a determined 
character, sued the Saudi Royal family for wrongful arrest and got 
enormous publicity. As the case moved through the courts, Bamieh 
managed to implicate the House of Saud in scandals as widely 
separated as the Nicaraguan Contras affair, the Bank of Credit 
and Commerce International, and financing political movements 
in Afghanistan, Somalia and the Sudan. Bameih had the money 
and resolve to make a nuisance of himself to both the Saudis and 
the US State Department. To avoid further unwanted negative 
publicity, the Saudis offered an out of court settlement which 
Bamieh accepted. 

Employees can also fall foul of disagreements between 
governments. Despite long periods of residence, it is not 
easy for non-Saudi Arabs to become Saudi citizens. Saudi 
Arabia retains the right to deport its long-term immigrants 
back to their country of origin at a moment's notice. In the 
last ten years, this right has been exercised at various times 
when the policy of these other countries departed from 
Saudi policy. 

224 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

During the first Gulf War, the Republic of Yemen supported 
Iraq. Approximately 850,000 Yemenis, many who had been 
in Saudi Arabia for decades, found themselves suddenly 
deported to a Yemen with which they had cut all ties. In 
Saudi Arabia, this action devastated the retail industry, where 
Yemenis tend to concentrate. In addition, the Republic of 
Yemen then had to cope with the sudden influx of nearly a 
million economic refugees it thought had left its lands forever. 
Palestinians and Jordanians, whose governments were also 
sympathetic to Iraq, faced similar problems for the same 
reason. Palestinians who had relocated their lives in Saudi 
Arabia were not welcome back after the war ended. Recruits 
from places like India and Egypt were admitted to fill the jobs 
that Palestinians had vacated. 


The aristocracy of Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest in 
the world. If you operate anywhere near VIP level, you 
have a better chance of meeting royalty in Saudi Arabia 
than almost any other country. Some of the minor blue 
bloods operate at quite modest levels in the corporate and 
administrative hierarchies. 

In Saudi Arabia, government and private ownership 
merges imperceptibly. Unlike other countries, no distinct 
boundary separates the private sector and the government. 
Since they have access to the almost unlimited funds of 
the Royal Treasury and are inclined to involve themselves 
in commercial activities, members of the Royal Family 
engage in all sorts of businesses. The Royal Family may own 
businesses in their own right, or in partnership with other 
people, either Saudi citizens or foreigners. Measured by 
extent of Royal Family shareholdings, in the mid-1990s, the 
Saudi government owned about two-thirds of the business 
interests of the country. 

At the less regal level, people in Saudi Arabia tend to accept 
their lot in life to a greater degree than some other cultures. 
The frantic struggle to rise to the top of the heap is not quite as 
evident in Saudi Arabia as other parts of the world. However, 
there are exceptions. Despite the natural advantages in capital 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 225 

and connections of the aristocracy, heroic rise to fame and 
fortune of the workingman is not unheard of. 

Pipeline Welder Makes Good 

Sulieman S Olayan started his life as a pipe welder on a Saudi oil rig. In 
a chance encounter with a member of Aramco's senior management 
who was one day making an inspection of his company's oil rig, 
Olayan offered his services as a sub-contractor to Aramco. The 
Aramco manager gave Olayan his chance. From this small beginning, 
the Olayan Group of companies grew to what has become one of 
the largest and most diversified and profitable businesses in the 
country; among many other things, selling Coca-Cola and Burger 
King franchises throughout the kingdom. Olayan is a typical large 
diversified Saudi Arabian company with interests in everything from 
catering to heavy construction and petrochemicals. Wherever you 
go in Saudi Arabia, an Olayan company can supply you something. 
In a similar story, the bin Laden family, now the biggest contractor 
in Saudi Arabia with operations also in the US, started as a minor 
contractor after Osama bin Laden's father crossed the border as 
penniless emigrant from Yemen. 

Until the mid-1980s, Saudi Arabia maintained controlling 
interests for all businesses operated inside the country. 
Foreign companies were permitted to operate in the country 
in partnership with Saudi firms, provided their partnership 
holdings were 49 per cent or less. In the mid- 1 990s, as the 
oil price plunged, the country needed increasing amounts of 
foreign investment to balance its books. Foreign ownership 
rules were relaxed. Areas identified as needing foreign 
investment were telecoms, utilities and financial services. 

Changing Rules for Control of Hydrocarbons 

In 2000, a Royal Decree was issued to allow 100 per cent foreign- 
owned businesses to operate in the country. Multinational companies 
including Exxon, Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Phillips Petroleum set 
up operations in the kingdom. This was a watershed event in a country 
that had previously wrested control of the country's oilfields back from 
the oil majors during the 1970s and 1980s. The Economist magazine, 
a fervent believer in free markets, commented at the time on the new 
measure: 'The most significant initiative is a US$ 25 billion scheme 
to attract oil majors into three huge natural gas projects...' 

226 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

At a more personal level, Saudi Arabia remains a country 
where guest workers as individuals are denied the opportunity 
of embarking on a business for themselves. Guest workers are 
normally bound by their visa conditions which are specific 
to a particular employer and maybe to a particular job. For 
those determined to set themselves up in business, a Saudi 
partner will be required to organise permissions and lodge 
the appropriate paperwork. 

Overseas businesses small and large have established 
operations in Saudi Arabia in large numbers in recent 
times. Investment attractive features of the Saudi business 
environment include generally good infrastructure, an 
entrepreneurial culture, minimal currency risk (the Riyal 
is tied to the US dollar), unregulated currency controls and 
a liberal tax system. Most businesses bring with them key 
members of their labour force. 


In some quarters, Saudi Arabia has a reputation for corruption, 
but no more so than the average of many other countries. 
In its '2006 Corruption Index', Transparency International— 
the international organisation dedicated to fighting 
corruption— ranked Saudi Arabia as the 79th least corrupt 
country from 1 79 countries surveyed. 

Handling the Critics 

Saudi authorities are sensitive about corruption allegations whatever 
their source. In 2002, Arab News reported that the Saudi authorities 
arrested a Saudi poet, Abdul Mohsen al-Muslim, who had written a 
poem in which he alleged corruption of the judiciary. The editor of 
the Saudi daily al-Madina, which published the poem was fired from 
his job Abdul Mohsen was arrested and 'interrogated ... for a long 
time about his poem' by high ranking security officers. In 2003, the 
authorities conducted a major purge of clerics to weed out those who 
were critical of the administration. 

An ongoing bone of contention between the clerics and 
the Royal Family is corruption in government, meaning the 
Royal Family itself. Allegations of corruption in the judiciary 
have also been raised. The most widely reported instances 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 227 

of major corruption are in relation to large arms purchases 
where payments of 'commissions' to princes holding 
ministerial positions are an accepted and expected way of 
doing business. 

At the day-to day-level, our experience is that Saudis are 
pretty honest. Not much gets pilfered. Perhaps deterrence 
offered by the legal system is working. No one wants to lose 
a hand for an act of petty theft. An American guest worker in 
the kingdom has recorded on the Internet a typical experience 
of the culture of honesty regarding private property: 

'Returning to Saudi Arabia after a vacation, my wife and I 
inadvertently left one of our many suitcases on the sidewalk 
outside the airport while we were loading them into the car. 
After the weekend, we asked a company driver to see if it had 
been turned in to lost-and-found. The driver returned with 
the bag. Airport security told the driver it sat on the sidewalk 
for two days. When no one picked it up, a policeman brought 
it to lost-and-found. Try leaving your bag on the platform in 
the New York subway for two days!' 


For those who intend to do business in Saudi Arabia, advice 
can be obtained from The Saudi Chambers of Commerce 
and Industry which has offices in major urban centres of 
the kingdom. A list of Saudi distributors for most products 
imported into the kingdom can be obtained from these 
Chambers of Commerce. In addition, credit reports can be 
obtained on prospective Saudi business partners. 

The Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry offices 
also offer an advertising service (for a fee) for those seeking 
Saudi representatives for their products or services. An 
Agent/Distributor Service is also available to identify the 
Saudi Arabian firms best suited to represent your products 
in the kingdom. In addition, the World Traders Data Report 
can be obtained to evaluate the performance of potential 
trading partners. After you have drawn up a short list of 
suitable representatives, you might be advised to visit Saudi 
Arabia to interview your candidates. For this purpose, you 

228 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

can obtain a short visit business visa, valid for one to three 
months, via a Saudi Arabian approved travel agent or through 
a Saudi Arabian consulate or diplomatic mission. For further 
information contact your Saudi Arabian Royal Embassy or 
Consulate or Diplomatic Mission. For contact details for the 
Chambers of Commerce go to: 

By law, prospective exporters of goods or services to 
Saudi Arabia, or firms or individuals wishing to do business 
in the kingdom need to appoint a Saudi Arabian partner, an 
import agent or a local representative to handle their business 
inside the kingdom. Since a great deal of the business in the 
kingdom is done through personal contacts rather than formal 
tender processes, such an arrangement is needed anyway to 
operate successfully inside Saudi Arabia. A local network of 
contacts is all important to realise exporters' ambitions. 

It should be noted that companies that deal with Israel 
may be restricted from operating in Saudi Arabia. Two of the 
biggest brand names that found themselves unable to operate 
in Saudi Arabia for many years were Ford and Coca Cola. 

Levi's is just one of the foreign companies that is allowed to operate in 
Saudi Arabia. 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 229 


Saudi Arabia's bureaucracies are no better than many and 
quite a bit worse than some. Like many a developing country, 
Saudi Arabia has an insatiable appetite for documentation, 
and requires submission of a bewildering array of licence 
application forms to permit you to undertake the most trivial 
activities. You get a flavour of the bureaucratic culture on 
first entering the Saudi Arabia. Officials tend to be officious. 
Paperwork is extensive. Space provided on the many forms 
that need to be completed seems to bear little relationship 
to the volume of data requested. 

An important function of the bureaucracy in Saudi Arabia 
seems is to provide employment for otherwise unemployable 
Saudi Arabians. The Saudi bureaucracy is the one area of 
the economy in which Saudis are isolated from competition 
from foreign labour for the simple reason that only Saudi 
citizens are permitted to work for the Saudi civil service. 
Guest workers who can work as consultants advising the 
Saudi government on their bureaucracy, cannot work within 
the bureaucracy itself. In fact, employment in the Saudi 
Civil Service is discriminatory even within Saudi Arabians. 
Members of the Shia sect, for example, are not normally 
hired for civil service positions. 

From the point of view of the foreigner, Saudi bureaucracy 
is widespread, all embracing and on occasions, almost 
impenetrable. For example, while in Saudi Arabia, one 
of the authors decided to buy a windsurfer to sail in the 
fresh breezes of the Persian Gulf. This turned out to be 
no simple transaction of paying the money and collecting 
the goods. The retailer selling the craft explained (after 
the money had been paid) that the law required him to 
sight a copy of the boat licence before the goods could 
be delivered. In Saudi Arabia, he said, a windsurfer is 
treated like a boat and every boat must have a licence 
issued by the Department of Licences. He explained where 
the office issuing the licence was located. A trip to the 
designated office confirmed his account. Catch 22 was 
that the boat licence could only be issued after inspection 
of the boat, the boat could only be released by the vendor 

230 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

on presentation of the licence, and the boat inspector 
was not permitted, or willing, to visit the premises of the 
retailer to carry out an inspection. 

With matters gridlocked at this point, the author returned 
to the shop. After pleading with the retailer, and leaving a 
gold watch in the shop as security against proper issue of the 
licence, the goods were released into the buyer's custody on a 
temporary basis. The 'boat' was loaded onto the roof rack on 
the top of the car then driven to the Department of Licences. 
From there it was taken to the Harbour authority where it 
could be measured. A form was produced, written around a 
passenger-carrying vessel the size of QE2. The form asked 
about the number of crew, the number of engines and their 
size, the gross registered tonnage, the number of lifeboats 
and so forth. Legally registered sailboards in Saudi Arabia, 
according to this form, are meant to carry lights, flares and 
an impressive array of life preserving equipment! 

The author filled out the form and submitted it to the 
official along with a fee (as always paid in cash). The official 
scanned the form, and didn't seem over-concerned about 
the absence of lifeboats and lifebelts, then asked where the 

Working and Doing Business in Saudi Arabia 231 

boat was moored. Told that it was on the roof-rack of a car 
parked outside, the official shrugged, but co-operated and 
solemnly ran his tape measure over the boat and entered 
the results (2.5 m / 10 ft) as the waterline length of the boat. 
Back in the office, the official duly signed and stamped 
the form explaining it would need to be presented to the 
Department of Licences, as it wasn't the licence but merely 
a measurement certificate that would enable the licence to 
be issued! 

The author had been in Saudi Arabia long enough to 
recognise the process. No one bureaucrat can explain the 
entire procedure. Each bureaucrat would explain a fragment 
and the customer would gradually piece the fragments 
together to make the whole picture. At each step of the 
procedure, a small amount of money (always cash) would 
change hands. Saudi bureaucracy isn't merely a licensing 
authority. It's an industry. 

Back at the Department of Licences, the official accepted 
the measurement certificate and commenced filling out the 
licence form with the name of the vessel (which had to be 
displayed in letters at least 150mm high on both sides of 
the bow and across the stern). The official also explained 
that sailing a windsurfer legally in the waters of Saudi Arabia 
would also require issue of a master's licence issued by the 
Department of Coastguard! The author didn't bother with 
that. But occasionally, watchers at the security gate of the 
compound reported personnel from the coastguard en route 
to the beach to check the paperwork of the sailing fraternity. 
No one, to my knowledge, managed to complete the entire 
paper trail and most never even start. 


'Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, 
Before we too into the Dust descend.' 
—Omar Khayyam 

Saudi Arabia at a Glance 233 

Official Name 

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 




The modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in 1932. 
Adopted on Saudi Arabia's assumption of nationhood, the 
Saudi national flag was based on the banner of the Wahhabi 

234 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

tribe, and features the Islamic inscription or shahad on a 
green field (the symbolic colour of Islam). The inscription 
read: 'There is no God but God and Muhammad is the 
Messenger of God'. The first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz bin 
Abdul Rahman Al Saud (Ibn Saud), added a sword to this 
flag in 1 902 after he established himself as the King of Nejd 
in central Saudi Arabia. As a variation on this theme, the 
modern Saudi Arabian flag was introduced only in 1 973. The 
inscription, which was unchanged from the previous flag, 
and its underlying icon of a sword encapsulates the essence 
of Saudi Arabia: this is a religious state supported by the 
power of the sword. Such is the deference to the message 
on the Saudi flag that when Fadh died in 2005 at the age of 
83, though flags were dropped to half mast in many Arab 
capitals, they were not lowered in Riyadh on the grounds that 
doing so would have been tantamount to blasphemy. 

National Anthem 

Aash Al Maleek ('Long Live Our Beloved King') 

Greenwich Mean Time plus 3 hours (GMT + 0300) 

Telephone Country Code 



Located in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is bordered by 
Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait to the north; Bahrain, Qatar, the 
United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman to the east and 
south-east; and Yemen to the south. The Red Sea separates 
Saudi Arabia from Africa to the west while the Persian Gulf 
separates it from Iran in the east. 


total: 1 ,960,582 sq km (756,985 sq miles) 
Highest Point 

Jabal Sawda' (3,133 m / 10,279 ft) 

Saudi Arabia at a Glance 235 


Desert climate with extremes of temperature 
Natural Resources 

Copper, gold, iron ore, natural gas and petroleum 

28,400,000 including 5,500,000 non-nationals (2008 est) 
Ethnic Groups 

Arab (90 per cent) and Afro- Asian (10 per cent) 

Predominantly Muslim 

Official Language 


Government Structure 


Adminstrative Divisions 

13 provinces: Al Bahah, Al Hudud ash Shamaliyah, Al Jawf, 
Al Madinah, Al Qasim, Ar Riyad, Ash Sharqiyah (Eastern 
Province), Asir, Ha'il, Jizan, Makkah, Najran, Tabuk 


Saudi riyal (SAR) 

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) 

US$ 375.5 billion (2007 est) 

Agricultural Products 

Barley, citrus, maize, sorghum, dates, melons, tomatoes 
and wheat 

Other Products 

Chickens, eggs, milk and mutton 

Saudi Arabia at a Glance 237 


Ammonia, basic petrochemicals, caustic soda, cement, 
commercial aircraft repair, commercial ship repair, 
construction, crude oil production, fertiliser, industrial gases, 
petroleum refining and plastics 


Petroleum and petroleum products 

Chemicals, equipment, foodstuffs, machinery, motor vehicles 
and textiles 


Estimated total of 21 3, of which 77 have paved runways. The 
main international airport is in Riyadh. 

Weights and Measures 

Saudi Arabia has adopted the metric system of measurement. 
Petrol is measured in litres (one US gallon = 3.86 litres), 
distances are measured in kilometres (one mile = 1.6 
kilometres) or metres (1 metre = 3.28 feet) and weights are 
measured in kilogrammes (2.2 pounds). For those buying 
gold— a favoured pursuit in the souqs of Saudi Arabia— the 
conversion is one ounce = 28 grams. 

King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud 
(better known to some as Ibn Saud) 

Ibn Saud's achievement was to create modern day Saudi 
Arabia. The Al Saud family, originated in the Najd area 
around present-day Riyadh. As an adolescent, Ibn Saud saw 
his family bundled out of Riyadh by their rivals, the Rushidis, 
eventually finding sanctuary near present day-Kuwait. To 
Ibn Saud, then 21 , banishment at the hands of the Rushidis 
was a matter of honour. In 1 901 , he set out to retake Riyadh 
from the Rushidis. Thirty years later, he had brought most 
of the Arabian Peninsula under his control. 

238 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

World Leaders and Ibn Saud 

Ibn Saud was a tall, strong, charistmatic warrior with a reputation for 
mercilessness. Though uneducated in the modern sense, he learned 
the ways of the world from personal experience, meeting heads of 
state like President Franklin D Roosevelt — who he liked — and Winston 
Churchill whose drinking habits he couldn't abide. 

Said Churchill, giving his take on his meeting with Ibn Saud, "My 
rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars 
and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during 
all meals and in the intervals between them." (from Triumph and 
Tragedy by Winston Churchill) 

Apart from military campaigns, Ibn Saud employed more 
personal methods to unite the country. Under Islamic law, 
a man was allowed four wives at any one time and could 
divorce any wife of his choosing in less than a minute, no 
questions asked. Ibn Saud practised short term marriages 
and instant divorces on a grand scale. Before setting off on 
his military campaigns, he would divorce at least one of his 
wives— reducing his quota of wives left at home base to three 
or less and often taking concubines with him to assuage 
his grief for the loss of his least favoured wife. Later, after 
conquering a town or a tribe, he would summon the head 
of the newly conquered people to produce a suitable wife. 
In thirty years, after countless skirmishes with the many 
tribes of the country, opinions vary on how many women 
Ibn Saud married. Some authorities estimate the number 
at a modest 40 while others have it as 300-400. Ibn Saud 
himself probably didn't keep accurate records. From his 
wives, collected and discarded, Ibn Saud produced a great 
many children who, a generation later, created a Royal Family 
numbering thousands. Inclined to boast of his sexual prowess, 
(and, in his later years, attended by armies of doctors 
prescribing aphrodisiacs), Ibn Saud once proudly claimed 
that he had never seen the face of many of his brides. They 
would arrive in abayas, spend their one-night marriage in his 
tent, then depart before the first prayer call the next morning. 
During the course of his life, from 1 7 different wives, Ibn Saud 
fathered a known 44 sons — 35 of whom were still alive on 
his death— and an unknown number of daughters. 

Saudi Arabia at a Glance 239 

Until he reached his mid-50s, Ibn Saud was perpetually 
short of money. He understood the potential of oil to change 
his country's fortunes and encouraged investment in the oil 
industry. In his last few years, oil made him extraordinarily 
wealthy. He died in 1 953 at the age of 73. Ibn Saud is one of 
the few people in history to name a country after himself. 

King Faisal 

Faisal was born in Riyadh in 1 905, the fourth son of Ibn Saud. 
Like his father before him, Faisal spent his early adulthood 
as a desert warrior. In 1925, Faisal and his supporters won 
a decisive victory in the Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia. He 
was appointed the Governor of Hijaz in 1926. When Saudi 
Arabia coalesced as a nation in 1932, Faisal was appointed 
Foreign Minister. The issue that most absorbed him in this 
role was the partition of Palestine, of which he disapproved. 
After Ibn Saud died, Faisal's older brother Saud came to the 
throne. Faisal continued to serve as a minister, gradually 
increasing his responsibilities. After a decade in which the 
country declined economically, the family engineered the 
abdication of King Saud who had proved to be a spendthrift 
and, in 1 964, placed Faisal on the throne. 

Before becoming king, Faisal became involved in 
arrangements for the pricing of oil. Over the last few years of 
the 1950s, the seven oil companies operating in the Middle 
East, nicknamed the 'Seven Sisters' had closed ranks to 
reduce their royalty payments to oil supplying countries. In 
his role as Foreign Minister, Faisal reached an arrangement 
with other oil exporting countries to control the production 
of oil. The five countries— Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia 
and Venezuela— met on 14 September 1960 in Baghdad 
and formed OPEC (the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting 
Countries). Later, other oil exporting countries joined OPEC's 
ranks. OPEC has probably been the only successful cartel the 
world has ever seen for a major commodity. 

During the same period, back at home in Saudi Arabia, 
Faisal took one other measure to secure his country's long- 
term oil future. He progressively increased his control of 
Aramco from the international oil companies. These two 

240 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

measures have produced a very different financial situation 
in Saudi Arabia today than it otherwise would have been. 
Revenues from the Saudi oil company Aramco have 
been sufficient to finance most of the country's financial 
operations, without the assistance of taxes. 

In 1 973, the last of the Arab/Israeli wars was fought— the 
Yom Kippur War won by Israel. The US lent critical support 
to Israel during the war by emergency airlifting massive 
amounts of military equipment. King Faisal showed his 
disapproval of this US action by boycotting oil supplies. The 
price of oil rose 400 per cent almost immediately, in what 
economists of the West later termed 'the first oil shock'. 
(The second oil shock occurred six years later in 1979, 
during the revolution in Iran). Most economists consider the 
oil shock a major factor in precipitating a lower period of 
economic growth in the West in the 1 970s, along with high 
inflation. From the Saudi perspective, the era of high oil prices 
had the opposite effect as inflated oil revenues flowed into 
the kingdom. 

Faisal's other major economic measure was to develop 
and modernise his country by investing its oil revenue in 
industrial development projects based on Saudi Arabia's 
advantage in obtaining cheap hydrocarbons from its oil and 
gas fields. A number of industrial plants have been built to 
produce petroleum derivative products such as synthetic 
fertilisers and petrochemicals. 

Most commentators consider King Faisal by far the most 
capable of Saudi Arabia's kings. Faisal was named Time 
magazine's Man of the Year in 1974. But in 1975, his rule 
came to an end when he was assassinated — shot three times 
in the face from close range by one of his nephews. 

Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani 

Sheik Yamani was King Faisal's charismatic Oil Minister 
who became the face of OPEC during the 1 970s and 1 980s. 
He was born in Mecca in 1930, where he grew up. He 
obtained his first degree in law from Cairo University 
in 1951 and a master's degree in law from New York 
University in 1955. He then graduated from Harvard Law 

Saudi Arabia at a Glance 241 

School in 1 956. In 1 958, he became an advisor to the Saudi 
government. Working closely with King Faisal, Yamani was 
appointed as oil minister in 1962, an office he held with 
great distinction. 

During the 1 970s, when the price of oil was of interest to 
most people, Yamani became the spokesperson for OPEC. 
In this role, with his goatee beard, his diplomatic skills and 
his smooth delivery, he became one of the most recognisable 
people on the planet. The soft-spoken Yamani was a great 
favourite with the press. 

OPEC, by its nature, was an organisation driven by 
the internal tensions of its various competing nations. 
Its operatons were based on member nations agreeing 
to production quotas that were unenforceable by the 
organisation itself, and were frequently exceeded. To the 
consuming countries of the world, OPEC was depicted as a 
malevolent force dedicated to undermining their economies. 
Despite the pressures, internal and external, the considerable 
diplomatic skills of Yamani maintained OPEC as a cogent 
economic force. 

In 1975, in a bizarre escapade, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, 
better known to the world as 'Carlos the Jackal', staged 
a highjack of OPEC representatives, including Yamani, 
who were holding a regular meeting in the organisation's 
headquarters in Vienna. While Carlos issued death threats 
inside the plane, the OPEC representatives were taken on 
various flights back and forth around the Mediterranean, to 
Algiers, then Tripoli, then back to Algiers. After the event, 
Yamani stated he was sure Carlos meant to kill him, but at 
the end of the affair, Yamani was released unharmed. 

After Faisal was assassinated, Yamani gradually lost his 
appeal to the House of Saud. The Ministry of Saudi Arabia 
was almost entirely composed of Al-Saud princes and 
Sheik Yamani was not of royal blood. In 1986, King Fadh 
sacked Yamani as oil minister. 

At the time of writing, Yamani lives in Jeddah. 




You are an expatriate woman you are taking a shopping trip 
down town. Where do you sit in the car? 

© In the driver's seat. 

© In the front passenger's seat. 

© In the back passenger's seat. 


Where you sit depends who else is in the car, and your 
relationship with them. Under Saudi law, women are not 
allowed to drive. So © is not right. Depending on the 
circumstances, either © or © could be right. The golden 
rule is you should sit next to whoever is your natural male 
companion. If you are married, the most suitable person 
for this role is your husband. If the husband is unavailable, 
your brother or son, if they are over 1 2 years old. If you are 
unmarried, the closest member of your family is, in order, 
brother or father, then uncle or nephew. If you are riding in 
a taxi, you must have a male family member with you. 

Culture Quiz 243 


You are an expatriate woman who has been invited to a 
Saudi home. While you are there, you are offered alcohol. 
Should you: 

© Explain you are a teetotaller and decline. 

© Explain you are a reformed alcoholic and decline. 

© Say that you understand the rules of the country don't 

permit the consumption of alcohol and decline. 
© Accept. 


Alcohol, being illegal, can be an awkward issue. The safest 
thing is not to drink while in the country, though most people 
who are not teetotallers do. © is probably the safest policy. 
However, plenty of people have accepted the hospitality as 
per ©, and lived to tell the tale. 


You are in a conference with your Saudi boss and another 
Saudi walks in. The boss focuses his attention on the 
other person and ignores you completely. What should 
you do? 

© Quietly leave the room to allow the two Saudis to get on 
with it. 

© Sit tight and wait until the focus returns to you. 
© Offer the Saudis a cup of coffee. 

© Interrupt the Saudi conversation, saying that you have 
work to do and will return later to finish the conference. 


© is the correct answer. 


You are invited to a dinner party, installed as guest of honour. 
Somewhere during the proceedings your host makes a great 
show of giving you a gift. Should you: 

244 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

© Decline to accept the gift and denounce the gift giver for 

attempted bribery. 
O Politely decline to accept the gift. 
© Accept the gift, but not open it. 
© Open the gift in front of all the guests. 


Gift-giving is widespread. Saudi attitudes to gift-giving are 
complex. Neither © or © is correct. If you reject the gift, 
however politely, the gift-giver will lose face. However, if you 
open the gift (©), you may lose face, if the gift-giver has given 
you something that people think you should have already 
had yourself, or your family should have given you. Under 
the circumstances, you accept the gift, but do not open it. 
© is the best policy. Having accepted the gift, the gift and 
the act of giving the gift should be quickly forgotten by both 
the donor and the recipient. 


You are playing tennis and the prayer call goes up. 
Should you: 

© Keep playing. 

© Stop playing, and remain on court to resume after prayer 

call ends. 
© Go home. 


It is in order to keep playing (assuming you are not a Muslim). 
Muslims do not expect non-Muslims to drop everything when 
the prayer call goes up. However, there is a fair chance, just to 
remind you who is boss of this nation, that if you are playing 
at night, the lights may be switched off. 


You have invited a Saudi to your home and he asks for whisky, 
what should you do? 

Culture Quiz 245 

© Say you don't drink. 

© Say you do drink, but don't have any whisky, and offer 

him some Sidiqui or home brew instead. 
© Give him all the whisky he wants. 


Course ® is fraught with peril. If you give a drink to a Saudi, 
and he gets into trouble as a result of it, you are in trouble. 
In addition, Saudi-expat friendships tend to be fragile. If you 
fall out of friendship, the Saudi has the power to inform the 
authorities of your activities. If he does, the authorities will 
probably act. Option © is not a good idea either for the same 
reason. Besides, Saudis don't regard the home brew industry 
going on their country highly, either as an activity or for the 
quality of its product. Likewise, Sidiqui is considered a low 
class drink. To offer it may be considered insulting. All round, 
© is the best option. 


You ring a business associate at his office and someone 
answers the telephone. You ask for the person by name. The 
voice answers, "Mr Mohammed has not come back yet." 
Should you: 

© Assume that Mr Mohammad is really there. 
© Leave a message for him to return you call. 
© Ask where Mr Mohmmad has gone. 
© Ask when Mr Mohmmad is likely to return. 


Like in most places, the claim that someone you want to 
speak to is out could mean any number of things. Whether 
you are likely to a receive a call back in the event you adopt 
option © depends on your status with Mr Mohammad. In 
most cases, the best option is to try again later. 

246 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 


You are interested in the Muslim religion and are invited to 
visit a mosque. Should you: 

© Accept. 
O Decline. 


There is no rule in Islam precluding non-Muslims from visiting 
a mosque. A Western diplomat tells a story of an encounter 
at Riyadh Airport with a member of the al Saud family where 
he was invited to visit the Airport's ornate mosque. The 
diplomat asked under what circumstances a non-Muslim 
could visit a mosque in the kingdom. The short answer is that 
non-Muslims in the kingdom can visit a mosque so long as 
they are invited by an appropriate Muslim. Not all that many 
expats visit mosques, for fear of offending the sensibilities of 
Muslims, and perhaps this is a good rule to follow. If you do 
visit a mosque, be sure to observe the appropriate protocols 
such as the removal of shoes. 


A public execution is to be held in your town. Should you: 

© Attend. 
© Stay away. 


The answer to this one probably depends more on your 
own sensitivities than those of the nation. The national 
policy is that all and sundry are encouraged to attend public 
executions. But attendance is not compulsory. Executions are 
meant to be a deterrent. There are certain executions, such 
as stoning to death, where only Muslim males are meant to 
participate (apart from the victim who is more likely to be a 
woman). If you do go, you have a fair chance of being a minor 
attraction. You may be pushed to the front of the crowd so 
you get an unrivalled view of the events. 

Culture Quiz 247 


You are introduced to a man wearing a white thobe, a red 
and white checked gutra and a black egal. What is his likely 

© Saudi. 
© Palestinian. 
© Yemeni. 


He is unlikely to be a Yemeni, since Yemenis do not wear 
egals. Although Jordanians do wear red and white gutras in 
Jordan, they are more likely to wear Western style clothing 
in Saudi Arabia— sometimes with gutra and egal. Palestinians 
working in Saudi Arabia also tend to wear Western dress— 
and if they wear gutra it is likely to be black and white check. 
So your new friend is likely to be a Saudi. But you can't 
be sure. 




■ Do accept coffee and tea whenever offered. 

■ Display a positive attitude towards Saudis. 

■ Do tell the Saudis how much you enjoy their country. 

■ Dress conservatively — arms and legs of women should be 
covered in public. 

■ If you are a business visitor, carry your passport wherever 
you go. 

■ If you are long-term guest worker, carry your Iqama. 

■ Refer to Saudi Arabia as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or 
the KSA. 

■ Pronounce Saudi as 'So-wu-di' not 'Saw-di'. 

■ Ensure your company has a picture of the reigning 
monarch in the front office. 

■ Keep in touch with the diplomatic mission of your country. 


■ As a woman, don't walk around Saudi-occupied areas 
unaccompanied by a male member of your family. 


■ Don't wear shorts in Saudi areas. 
Both Genders 

■ Don't go out of your way to press Saudi nationals with 
your friendship. 

■ Don't touch a member of the opposite sex in public. 

■ Don't take photographs without permission. 

■ Don't shake hands with Saudi women. 

■ Don't discuss politics or religion. 

■ Don't admit to any personal failings that might diminish 
your role as an employee. 

■ Don't carry any pornographic material, including 
newspapers with pictures of scantily clad females, into 
the country. 

Do's and Don'ts 249 

Don't have Israeli visa stamps in your passport. 

During Ramadam, don't smoke, eat or drink during 

daylight hours in front of Saudi nationals. 

While sitting cross-legged, don't display the soles of your 

feet to anyone in the vicinity. 

Don't supply alcohol to Saudis. 



'Arabic names won't go into English exactly, for their consonants 
are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from 
district to district.' 

— T E Lawrence to his proofreader 
on the various spellings of Arab names in his book, 
Revolt in the Desert, in 1 926 




Hello, peace be upon you 

As-salaam alaykum 


Wa alaykum salaam 

How are you 



Zane or Kowaies 

Praise be to God (I'm fine ) 

Al-humdoolillah bikhair 

Good morning 

Sabaah al-khair 


Sabaah al-nuur 

Good evening 

Masaa al-khair 


Masaa an-nuur 

Good bye, go in safety 

Ma' a salama 


Allah yisullmak 

May God go with you 

Fi Amanellah 

Nice to meet you 



Ahlan wa sahlan 

Excuse me 

Asif or Ismahlee 



Thank you 


You're welcome 


Glossary 251 

Getting Around 

Do you speak English? 

Tet kalam Ingleezi? 

Do you understand...? 


I don't understand 

Ana mafehempt 

I don't speak Arabic 

Ana laa ta-kalam al-Arabiah 

My name is... 


What is your name? 

Aish ismak? 

What is your job? 

Aish shoghol? 





How much 




Nothing, none, nobody 



Enaam or aiwa 





Arabian Coffee 



Moya or moy 

























252 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 




Arba 'a 






Sab 'a 









































One Hundred 





Saudi Arabia's phone system is provided by a private 
company, Saudi Telecommunications Company (STC). 
Landlines cover all major centres in the country. In addition 
the Global System for Mobiles (GSM) covers 45 Saudi cities 
and towns and all major highways. Internet connections are 
widely available, though content may be censored more than 
most places. International Direct Dialling (IDD) is generally 
available. The kingdom's telephone country code is '966' 
while the main city codes are: 

■ Riyadh 01 

■ Jeddah and Mecca 02 

■ Al-Jubayl, Al-Dammam and Al-Khobar 03 

■ Yanbu 04 

■ Mobile 05 

The following emergency contact numbers apply: 

■ Police 999 

■ Fire 998 

■ Ambulance 997 

Finding a Phone Number 

Saudi Arabia publishes an English language phone book, but 
extracting information from it is no easy task. The telephone 
book lists the name of the owner of the house rather than the 
occupant. This makes it almost impossible to find the telephone 
number of an expat. 

In the classified section of the telephone book, there are 
some interesting entries. International consulting companies like 
British Aerospace are listed under 'O' for organisations whereas 
international companies like Seimens are listed under 'C for 
companies. Organisations like the United Nations are listed under 
'E' for establishments. 

Using a Saudi phone book takes perseverance and imagination.' 

—Source: Susan Mackay. The Saudis 

254 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

Accommodation arrangements, including phone connection 
and payment of phone bills, for almost all guest workers 
staying in the country are almost always the responsibility 
of the employer. A guest worker would not normally be 
expected to or be authorised to arrange phone connections 
for landlines. Like other utilities, phone bills will normally be 
sent to and paid for by employers. 


Most employers include full health care in the employment 
package. For those outside this arrangement, Saudi Arabia has 
a few top hospitals, but except for routine ailments, provision 
of health care services is expensive. Most embassies advise 
you to include medical insurance in your arrangements prior 
to entry in the country. 

A list of hospitals in Saudi Arabia may be obtained at the 
following webpage: % 20Hospitals % 
20in % 20middle % 20east.asp?id = #Saudi % 20Arabia 

Dental Clinics 

Saudi nationals receive free dental treatment. Dental clinics 
are housed within general hospitals or as stand-alone 
clinics. Specialist dental hospitals are also available. For 
outlying districts and remote villages, mobile dental clinics 
are provided. 


Most regions in the country have access to international 
schools. For a complete list of schools available in Saudi 
Arabia, you can consult the International Schools website: 

Language Schools 

Opinions amongst expats differ on the value of language 
schools for those who want to learn Arabic. Our general 
view is that most language schools are geared to teaching 
Classical Arabic, with a strong focus of interest on the Qur'an, 

Resource Guide 255 

not only for its language, but also for its general philosophy. 
Most likely, most expats would prefer to be learning 
conversational Arabic devoid of heavy religious overtones. 
An alternative to schools is to hire a private tutor. Skills of 
private tutors vary enormously. You will probably have to hire 
and fire a few to find someone compatible with your needs. 
Generally the recommended profile, at least for a start, is 
a non-Saudi Arabic speaker, either a non-Saudi Arab or an 
Arabic-speaking Third Country National. Details of people 
offering such services for your particular regional area in 
Saudi Arabia are liberally listed on the Internet and also in 
English-language newspapers such as Arab News. 


Expats visiting Saudi Arabia may obtain support from in- 
kingdom expat clubs. People, particularly women, who live 
in compounds tend to develop a large variety of common 
interest groups within their common living areas. Other expat 
groups are more widely spread. For those who wish to contact 
expat groups prior to travelling to Saudi Arabia and perhaps 
exchange some views in advance of going there, try: = 97 


Opportunities for participating in volunteer work in Saudi 
Arabia are very limited due to the various restrictions on 
travel, working for anyone other than your designated 
employer or, if you are a woman, working for anyone 
at all. 


There are two nationally circulated English-language 
newspapers in the country: Arab News and Saudi Gazette. In 
addition, Riyadh Daily is an English-language paper of more 
restricted circulation. 

A number of English-language magazines are in circulation 
as well, presenting the Arab point of view. It is worth taking a 
look at one or two of the English-language Saudi newspapers 

256 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

and the magazines to get a more Arab slant on the news 
than that presented by the pro-Israeli viewpoint of most of 
the Western press. 

Copies of magazines imported into the country are 
scrutinised by censors. Girlie magazines of the Playboy ilk 
are banned in Saudi Arabia and thereby acquire scarcity 
value. Copies of Playboy and Penthouse may change hands 
for about US$ 100. Western magazines, particularly news 
magazines like Newsweek or The Economist are sometimes 
banned for carrying politically incorrect articles. For less 
serious misdemeanours, offending magazines may be 
allowed to go on sale provided that every copy of whatever 
article offends the Saudi censor is either cut out or blacked 
out by a marker pen-wielding minor bureaucrat. According 
to sceptics on this subject, thousands of such government 
salaried imams are employed on censoring magazines as a 
contribution to solving the unemployment problem. 

The marker pen form of censorship is, incidentally, 
particularly ineffective. Not only does it draw attention to 
an article you might otherwise have missed, the text is 
quite legible if the article is held up to the light. If you find 

Resource Guide 257 

a magazine that contains a column that has been blacked 
out by a marker pen, you can assume that underneath the 
censor's handiwork lies an article of interest. 

Bringing Information to Your Attention 

Browsing through a library in Saudi Arabia, the author's attention 
was attracted by some Textra colour highlighting in the Guinness 
Book of Records under the heading 'The World's Biggest Bribe'. A 
Middle Eastern Prince taking his extraordinary dues on some defence 
company contract held the record. But for the activities of the censor, 
this snippet might have been missed. 

Religious texts are also banned, particularly those that 
could be construed by Customs officials or the Mutawa'een 
as undermining Islamic faith. Books of Common Prayer and 
the Bible fall into this category. It is not a good idea to include 
Christian prayer books, bibles or other seditious material in 
your luggage when entering Saudi Arabia. 

General Information 

■ CIA Factbook 

Visa and Travel Information 

■ US Department of State: Consular Information Sheet 
http : //travel . 1 1 2 .html 

■ Saudi Embassy 

http : //www. saudiembassy. net/Travel/Travel . asp 

(For more detailed information, click on the relevant 

section in the menu on the left.) 

Tourist Information 

■ US Department of State 

http : //www. state, gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3 584.htm 

■ Lonely Planet Guide 

258 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

■ Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) 

History of Saudi Arabia 

■ Library of Congress 

(Federal Research Division/Country Studies) 

■ The Middle Eastern Network Information Centre 

http : //link.lanic.utexas. edu/menic/Countries_and_Regions/ 

■ Arab Countries: Saudi Arabia 

Islamic Culture 

■ British Broadcasting Corporation 


http : //www. zawaj . com/links. html 

Job Opportunities 

■ Jobs of Arabia (run by Professional Systems and Services) 

Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia 

■ Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edleman, Berkman Centre 
for Internet & Society (Harvard Law School) 

Human Rights Information 

■ Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (released by 
the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour 

■ Human Rights Watch 
Country Pages: Saudi Arabia = mideast&c = saudia 

(For a year by year overview of the Human Rights 
Development in the country, click on the respective year 
on the right of the page.) 

Resource Guide 259 

■ Amnesty International: Saudi Arabia 


Included here is a random selection of books that examine 
and extend some of the topics covered in CultureShock! 
Saudi Arabia, and look more generally at the Middle East as 
an area of compelling interest to most of the world. Since 
literally thousands of books have been written about the 
Middle East, many worthy books will be omitted from the 
following short list. We have selected just a small sample 
of the literary offerings that we hope covers a range of 
viewpoints and subject matters. Most of the books we 
have listed take the outsider point of view, since this is 
the perspective from which CultureShock! is written. Our 
purpose is to detail the likely culture shock experienced by 
visitors to Saudi Arabia, not its own citizens. However, we 
have also included a sample of books displaying the insider, 
the Saudi, viewpoint of their own country. The books are 
roughly sorted by topics that do not coincide particularly 
with the chapter order of CultureShock!. 

Further Reading 261 


Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. T E Lawrence. London: 
Penguin Books Ltd, 2000. 

■ The book is included in this section not only because it is a 
classic of its genre, but also because it contains some of the 
most acute observations of the physical conditions of Saudi 
Arabia from the viewpoint of a painstaking observer — the 
landscape, the weather, the living conditions and the food 
of the pre-oil Bedouin culture. Lawrence's role in Saudi 
Arabia wasn't all that well known until the blockbuster film 
Lawrence of Arabia portrayed him as the genius military 
strategist who 'went Arab', a role that some historians 
feel was exaggerated. The book, written by Lawrence, is 
an intensely personal account that may well embellish 
some of his own achievements. For that reason it has not 
been beyond controversy. Some historians also dispute 
the book's historical accuracy. For all that, for students of 
Saudi Arabia, this is an engrossing read. 

The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa 'ud. Robert Lacey. 
New York, NY: Avon Books, 1983. 

■ This book is somewhat of a standard text. Though now 
a bit dated, it is an easy-to-read factual account of the 
history of Saudi Arabia through to about the 1 980s. Covers 
the tribal aspect of the Saudi society as well as religion, 
politics, culture and economy. 

A History of Saudi Arabia. Madawi Al-Rasheed. Cambridge, 
UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 

■ A complement to Lacey's book, A History of Saudi Arabia 
covers the same subject from a Saudi perspective. The 
book describes the history of this enigmatic country from 
inception to the present day, with special reference to the 
cultural and social life in the country from a female, Saudi 
Arabian perspective. 

The Desert King. David A Howarth. London: Quartet Books, 1 980. 

■ This is probably the most readable account of one of the 
most fascinating men of the 20th century, Ibn Saud, the 

262 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

first of the Saudi Kings, the man who spent the first half of 
his working life uniting his nation. It is an account of his 
origins, his battles, his marriages, his divorces, his many 
children and the birth of the oil industry. Though this is 
an old book and the story has been told many times by 
many different authors, for readability of a fascinating 
story, David Howarth's book sets the standard. 

Faisal, by Joseph A. Kechichian, 2008. 

■ Written by an American academic of Lebanese and Armenian 
descent, the book focuses on King Faisal as the policy maker 
in shaping the Middle East more than Faisal the man. 


The Clash of Civilisations: And the Remaking of the World Order. 
Samuel P Huntington. London: The Free Press, 2002. 

■ This is a rather long and somewhat technical book written 
by a leading academic who is a Professor at Harvard 
University making the general point that 'east is east and 
west is west, and never the twain shall meet'. Huntington 
considers that the gap between western and eastern 
cultures is vast, and is not getting any narrower— a point 
that we have also tried to make in Culture Shock. 

The Clash of Fundamentalism: Crusades, fihad, and Modernity . 
by Tariq Ali. London and New York, NY: Verso, 2003. 

■ This recent book by UK-based academic, Tariq Ali, 
is a controversial, deeply personal and wide ranging 
description of the failure of nations to understand each 
other and therefore to wage wars of various sorts on 
each other. Ali had, by the time this book was published, 
established somewhat of a reputation as a radical thinker 
who generally opposed the established world order. This 
book ranges far and wide, well outside Saudi Arabia, in 
examining the interactions between the Islamic world and 
the rest of the world. It complements Huntington's book, 
and reaches similar conclusions via a different, more 
personal route. They say you shouldn't judge a book by 
its cover. This book is almost worth buying for its cover 

Further Reading 263 

alone— a picture of George Bush, computer-enhanced to 
look like Osama bin Laden! 


Princess: A True Story Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. Jean P 
Sassoon. Minneapolis, MN: Econo-clad Books, 2001. 

■ This is the best selling book that lifts a corner of the veil of 
secrecy that shrouds women's issues in Saudi Arabia. It is 
(or purports to be) the autobiography of a rebellious Saudi 
princess living in opulent conditions in a palace in Riyadh. 
Princess Sultana writes under a pseudonym using a ghost 
author. So specific are descriptions, it's hard to believe that, 
if she really exists, she would not have been identified by 
her husband and close members of her family. One of the 
fascinating questions of the book is the degree to which 
it is true. 

At the Drop of a Veil. Marianne Alireza. Costa Mesa, CA: The 
Blind Owl Press, 2002. 

■ The account of Princess Sultana has been contradicted 
by some in Saudi Arabia. Defenders of the Saudi Arabian 
way of life claim that Princess is a beat up, written by a 
woman's rights author for western consumption with the 
express purpose of making money. For those who want 
to hear the opposite viewpoint— that all is, in fact, well 
between womanhood and Saudi culture— an alternative 
is At the Drop of a Veil by Marianne Alireza, presents it. 
This book is a personalised description of an American 
women living in Saudi Arabia and married to a Saudi 
man; an arrangement that, according to the author, was 
generally satisfactory. 

The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of 
Women's Rights in Islam. Fatima Mernissi. Trans. Mary Jo 
Lakeland. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1992. 

■ Women's role in Islam has received mixed reports. 
Muslims make the point that in principle, Islam is not 
a misogynist religion. However, Islam, as much as any 

264 CultureShock! Saudi Arabia 

religion, is bound not only by its holy scriptures but by 
those who administer the religion here on earth; and the 
Muslim religion (like most others) is administered by men. 
Though women are permitted to enter mosques and are 
expected to worship the one true God, the administration 
of the religion is strictly the province of males. To date, 
there are no female mullahs in the Muslim religion. 


Forbidden Truth: US-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy and the 
Failed Hunt for bin Laden. Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillame 
Dasquie. New York, NY: Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation 
Books, 2002. 

■ We have included this somewhat radical book to present 
an alternative viewpoint. This is a highly controversial 
'other side' account of the 9-11 attacks on New York, first 
written in French by French authors not known for their 
mindless obeisance to the US official version of the state 
of the world. The book offers clues to the answer of the 
intriguing question that was not generally allowed to be 
asked of the fatal attacks e.g. why did they do it?; and 
an even more intriguing question, did the US authorities 
know they were going to do it? The answers, according 
to the authors, lie in a murky mix of political intrigue, 
oil pipelines across Afghanistan and the ambivalence 
of Saudi Arabia in funding Islamic radical organisations 
on the one hand, while relying on US as a customer and 
defender of the regime on the other. Commercial links 
between oil companies associated with George 'Dubya' 
Bush and the Bin Laden family well prior to 9-11 are of 
particular interest. 


Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. Karen Armstrong. 
London: Phoenix Press, 2001 . 

■ Many books have been written on the Prophet Muhammad, 
rated by some as the most influential person in human 
history. Some are eulogies while others are scathing 

Further Reading 265 

criticisms. In recommending a book on Muhammad, we 
have tried to opt for balance. Karen Armstrong's book is, 
we believe, a reliable 'warts and all' account of the life and 
times of this astonishing historical individual. 


Living & Working in Saudi Arabia: Your Guide to a Successful 
Short or Long-Term Stay . Rosalie Rayburn and Kathleen Bush. 
Oxford: How To Books, 2001 . 

■ Very similar to CultureShock! , this book is written with the 
purpose of advising those going to Saudi Arabia on how 
to learn the ropes. In CultureShock!, we have concentrated 
more on the cultural differences of Saudi Arabia and 
particularly for those coming from the West. Rayburn and 
Bush's book is more of a hands-on guide to operating in 
Saudi Arabia. A valuable adjunct to CultureShock! for those 
bound for Saudi Arabia. 

Don 't They Know It's Friday? Cross Cultural Considerations for 
Business and Life in the Gulf. Jeremy Williams. Dubai: Gulf 
Business Books, 1999. 

■ An amusing, practical hands-on guide to the pros and cons 
and quirks of doing business in Saudi Arabia. This book 
complements and reinforces some of the subjects covered 
in CultureShock!. 

To Be a Saudi. Hani A Z Yamani. London: Janus Publishing 
Co, 1997. 

■ There are plenty of books looking into Saudi Arabia from 
a Western viewpoint. This is a book looking out of Saudi 
Arabia from a Saudi viewpoint, written by an author 
who clearly loves his country. It makes some interesting 
predictions (not shared by the authors of CultureShock!) 
as to where the country is likely to head to from here. 



Peter North first started living and working in Asia about 
25 years ago. He started writing for Marshall Cavendish 
about eight years ago and has now contributed six titles 
to the CultureShock! and business reference series. Peter 
is also a contributor of articles to various magazines, in 
particular Pacific Ecologist. He spends his time pursuing 
various interests in environment, current affairs, science and 
engineering. Peter's titles include Success Secrets to Maximize 
Business in Australia, Success Secrets to Maximize Business in 
Britain, Countries of the World: Australia and CultureShock! 
Cambodia— all published by Marshall Cavendish, and Growing 
for Broke and State in Fear published by Tomorrow Press. 

About the Authors 267 

Harvey Tripp is a graduate of the University of Melbourne 
and has spent most of his corporate life in international 
business, holding senior management positions in major 
international consumer goods companies including the 
management of their operations in the kingdom of Saudi 
Arabia. Harvey has lectured on international business, 
including how to do business in Saudi Arabia, at a number of 
universities in Australia and has been on the advisory boards 
of universities and other tertiary institutions to help develop 
their international business programs. Harvey has been a 
consultant to small and medium sized businesses and has 
had interim executive assignments with corporations whose 
primary focus is international business. He has also been a 
director of small to medium sized Australian companies. He 
is the co-author of Success Secrets to Maximise Business in 
Hong Kong, Success Secrets to Maximise Business in the United 
Arab Emirates and CultureShock! Bahrain. 




accommodation 116-119 

appliances 122 
American English 199 
Arabic 192-199 

pronunciation guide 193-194 

architecture 157-158 
literature 159-161 
museums 158-159 
music 160-161 
painting 160 
performing arts 160-161 


Bedouins 71-73 
bodily contact 89-90 
body language 1 99-200 


calendar 153-157 

Dammam 6,39,73,129,167, 
168, 177 

Jeddah 6, 34, 61 , 75, 100, 119, 
134, 151, 157, 158, 159, 161, 
164, 165, 168. 210, 223, 241 

Mecca 6,15,16,18,22,23,24,25, 
26,27,28,40,70,87, 108, 

Medina 22,25,108,153,157,159, 

Riyadh 2,6,7,10,16,17,18,19, 
39,41,48,54,64,67, 74,75, 
96,99, 103, 119, 124, 130, 
167, 168, 182, 184,203,233, 

Taif 165-166 


domestic help 123 

dressing 90-97 

abaya 2,58,59,63,70,71,92,93, 
94,97, 179, 185,238 

gutra 71,84,85,90,125,160 
thobe 71,84,85,90,94,160,185 


economy 202-203 
education 73-76,206 

Bedouin style 142-144 

hospitality 140-142 

dress code 94-97 

hierarchy 82-83 

long-term immigrants 83-84 

religious freedom 98-99 

workforce 79-82 


financial matters 120-121 
banking facilities 120-121 
currency 120-121 
ethics 121 

trading hours 121-122 

Five Pillars of Islam 
27-28,79. 175,209 

hajj 6,27,28,29,79,113,167, 

salat 27.31,209,213-215 

sawm 27,28 

shahadah 27 

zakat 27,28,222 
food and drink 

alcohol 146-148 

coffee shops 144-145 

restaurants 139-140 

traditional food 137-139 
funerals 100-101 


geography 12-14 
government 45-48 


health care 11 6 
history 11-12,14-22 

Ibn Saud 11,17,18,20,21,22,46, 
47,56,94, 156, 164,234,237-239 

Inshallah 31,209,213 

Index 269 

Islam 5,22-35,36,40.54.60,62, 
63,68, 69,78,82,90,98,99, 145, 


King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman 
Al Saud See Ibn Saud 

King Faisal 21,22,40,47.75, 


law 67-70, 101-102 
penalties 104-106 


Mutawa'een 69,70. 86,88,89,97, 


photography 178-179 


qisas 126 

Qur'an 18.25,51,55,56,62,63.65, 
67, 68, 69,73,75,80,87,88, 92, 
94, 101, 121. 130, 159, 160, 179, 
192, 209, 217. 219, 220. 221 

Hadith 67 

Sunnah 67 


Ramadan 24,27,28,33,34,35,67, 

rukhsa 127 


Saudi society 

children 54 

family 52-54 

interaction 55-59 

names 54-55 

security 1 02- 1 04, 1 06- 1 1 

Shariah Law 56,58,67,68,101, 
106, 121, 126,217.220,221,222 

diya 106,126,127,220 

Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani 240-241 

shopping 132-134 

souq 134,135,150,166,167, 

sightseeing 1 64- 1 67 

other countries 1 76- 1 78 

sports and recreation 
basketball 184 
beaches 185-188 
camel racing 180-181 
falconry 183-184 
golf 189 
horse racing 1 83 
leisure activities 179-180 
soccer 184 
swimming 189 
water sports 189-190 



post 129-130 

radio 132 

television 130-132 

accidents 126-128 

air 168-169 

driving 123-126 

taxis 128-129 

train 168 


unemployment 208 


visas 113-115 


weddings 100-101 
women 59-67 

expatriates 86-89 

identity 62-65 

religion 62 

work 65-67 
work and business 203-231 

bureaucracy 229-231 

commercial law 220-221 

contacts 227-228 

corruption 226-227 

criticism 222 

employment contracts 2 1 6-2 1 9 

income tax 221-222 

ownership 224-226 

religion 213-216 

training 211-213 

working relationships 222-224 


Titles in the CultureShock! series: 



Sri Lanka 


Hong Kong 







South Africa 






Sri Lanka 





















Travel Safe 






United Arab 




Costa Rica 




New Zealand 


Czech Republic 














San Francisco 

Great Britain 

Saudi Arabia 



For more information about any of these titles, please contact any of 
our Marshall Cavendish offices around the world (listed on page ii) 
or visit our website at: